Seven games into the 2019/20 season and Kevin De Bruyne has already taken FPL by storm. Contributing two goals and nine assists, he currently sits atop the points standings with 63, four clear of teammate Sergio Aguero.
Parallels can be drawn with his start to this season and Eden Hazard’s impressive early form in 2018/19. At the same stage last season, Hazard had scored six goals and provided two assists, giving him a total of 60 FPL points. This article will assess the extent to which a comparison can be made between their respective starts and therefore attempt to forecast how De Bruyne will fare in the medium to long-term.
Looking beyond their almost identical number of points scored is the nature of those returns. Both players returned at least one goal or assist in six of those seven matches and provided three double figure hauls, providing a balance between consistent and explosive returns. As a result, Hazard, and now De Bruyne could and have been viewed as permanent captain options, around this point of the last two seasons. That is of course based on the hindsight of prior returns – if the clock could be turned back, leaving the captaincy on those two players for the first seven gameweeks would have been very fruitful. This is particularly evident this season as the Manchester City-Liverpool premium rotation against perceived weaker opposition has not been as successful as in 2018/19.
So what can be inferred from the upcoming games regarding De Bruyne’s captaincy potential? In 2018/19, Hazard and Chelsea started with a favourable run of games, with Liverpool in Gameweek 7 providing the most challenging matchup. In the same stretch this season, Manchester City could not have had a kinder run of games, with Spurs in their first home game the toughest test. Hazard and De Bruyne were able to take advantage of these fixtures, scoring points at a greater rate than in previous seasons. This is clearly the time to own a premium asset, although it is always easier said than done. At this point, seven gameweeks into the season, Hazard and De Bruyne were/are in the ‘essential’, perhaps even ‘auto-captain’ category. But at was at this very point last season that Hazard was about to enter a tougher run of fixtures as Manchester United and Manchester City visited Stamford Bridge, whilst Chelsea travelled to Spurs and Wolves during a run of just eight gameweeks. Partly as a result of a minor injury (another potential comparison with De Bruyne depending on the extent of current reports), Hazard went on to deliver no goals and four assists in that run. De Bruyne and Manchester City are soon to face a similarly demanding run, as they to travel to Liverpool and Burnley, and also take on Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, all between Gameweeks 12 and 17. This is not to say that Manchester City will not win these games, but the 4-0, 5-0 and 8-0 scorelines already chalked up this season are unlikely to be repeated in any of those matches. In addition, it is not a reason to sell De Bruyne, it is merely a comparison between a similar run of matches that Hazard’s form dropped during last season.
If the fixtures denote a degree of similarity between Hazard’s downturn in form last season and those that De Bruyne is soon to face, do the underlying statistics from the first seven gameweeks indicate any further resemblance? Looking at their xG and xA values, they virtually reverse each other, with Hazard managing 2.75 and 1.60 compared to De Bruyne’s 1.64 and 2.96 in 42 more minutes. With Hazard and De Bruyne gaining a total of 8 and 10 direct goal involvements respectively (not including FPL assists), it is clear that they both outperformed by a large degree. However, this is not unusual for De Bruyne, such is and his teammates’ quality in the final third. For example, a total of 24 direct goal involvements (excluding FPL assists) in 2017/18 came from an xGI of just 16.85, a 42% outperformance. Meanwhile, 10 direct goal involvements from an xGI of 4.60 this season is 217% more than expected – him outperforming is understandable but not to that extent. Even accounting for a) a break from action through injury allowing De Bruyne to attain higher performance levels than other Premier League players (as discussed in Tifo’s ‘What if football stopped for a year?‘) and b) his and the likes of Raheem Sterling’s efficiency in the final third increasing in their prime years, that disparity cannot be justified. It is this combination with the aforementioned slightly tougher run of fixtures that saw Hazard struggle to maintain his early season form. Could the same happen to De Bruyne in a few weeks time? It is a possibility, but perhaps not to the same extent given the quality in the team around him.
Delving deeper into the underlying numbers, De Bruyne’s obscene chance creation numbers do place him significantly ahead of Hazard’s first seven games of 2018/19, having created 29, nearly double his compatriot’s 15. Meanwhile, the pair’s goal threat was almost identical, each taking 18 goal attempts, with Hazard ahead for shots in the box by 12-11. It is difficult to absolutely compare these two sets of data, given that they are in different seasons, for different teams, against different teams and in different playing positions. Nonetheless, De Bruyne’s underlying numbers are better than Hazard’s were at the same stage and for a cheaper price.
Therefore, the respective FPL points, underlying numbers and fixture shift of Hazard last season carry certain similarities but not a complete reflection of De Bruyne’s in the present and near future. As the fixtures stiffened for Hazard, his form dropped sharply, be it coincidentally or otherwise. Contextual factors in De Bruyne’s favour, particularly his incredible creativity stats as part of one of Europe’s most efficient attacking outfits limit the likelihood of a loss of form to the same extent. Furthermore, those upcoming fixtures are nowhere near as daunting as they appear, because fixture difficulty depends on the team in question and Manchester City are very, very good. Nevertheless, De Bruyne’s current rate of nine points per match across an entire season has never been seen before, as not even Mohamed Salah could manage that in 2017/18 with his remarkable 8.42. So whilst De Bruyne is currently an almost must-own and excellent captaincy candidate in FPL now – time will tell how long those statements remain the case.
Stats from Fantasy Football Scout
Image Credit: Brad Tutterow [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]