Kevin De Bruyne wasn’t always Manchester City’s midfield kingpin, a three-time Premier League champion and perennial member of both the Premier League and Champions League Teams of the Season. Just eight years ago he was an attention-starved sixth choice attacker at Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.
Having signed for the Blues in the January transfer window of 2012 for £7.2 million, De Bruyne was immediately loaned back to selling club Genk and then spent a season in Germany with Werder Bremen. But when he was brought back to Stamford Bridge to make a run at the Chelsea first team at the start of the 2013-14 campaign, the second coming of Mourinho became a serious issue.
“When I was at Chelsea, there was so much in the press about my relationship with Jose Mourinho,” De Bruyne wrote for the Player’s Tribune in 2019. “But the truth is that I only ever spoke to him twice.
“When I came back to Chelsea that summer, a few German clubs wanted to sign me. Jurgen Klopp wanted me to come to Borussia Dortmund, and they played the kind of football that I enjoy. So I thought maybe Chelsea would let me go.
“But then Mourinho texted me: ‘You are staying. I want you to be part of this team.’ So I thought ‘OK, great. I’m in his plans.’
“When I arrived for pre-season, the vibe was good. I started two of the first four games of the season, and I thought I played OK. Not brilliant, but pretty good. After the fourth game, that was it.”
He would never start a game for Chelsea again outside of the League Cup, with only five more minutes of Premier League action afforded to him as a substitute against Fulham.
Mourinho had lots of other options to choose from at the time, but De Bruyne believed in his own ability and thought he was worthy of more game time.
“When he was supposed to leave on loan and I made the decision for him to stay, I saw those qualities,” Mourinho told talkSPORT some years later. “He did not have the experience and maturity he has now, but his feet and his vision was already there.
“He knew very well what he wanted and he was not ready to have that season at Chelsea where a lot of good players were in the same team, he didn't have the patience. He was coming from a season in Germany where he was playing every minute of every match.
“Sometimes us coaches make mistakes, but that was not the case. I saw he had the potential to do it, but he just knew perfectly well what he wanted.”
By January 2014 what De Bruyne wanted was to get out, especially after a meeting with the manager the previous month which underlined how far down the pecking order the Belgian was.
“Jose called me into his office in December,” De Bruyne added in the Player’s Tribune piece. “He had some papers in front of him, and he said: ‘One assist. Zero goals. Ten recoveries.’
“It took me a minute to understand what he was doing. Then he started reading the stats of the other attacking forwards — Willian, Oscar, Juan Mata, Andre Schurrle. And it’s like — five goals, 10 assists, whatever.
“Jose was just kind of waiting for me to say something, and finally I said: “But some of these guys have played 15, 20 games. I’ve only played three. So it’s going to be different, no?
“It was so strange. We had a bit of a conversation about me going back out on loan. And Mata was also out of favour at the time, so Jose said, ‘Well, you know, if Mata leaves, then you will be the fifth choice instead of sixth.’
“I was completely honest. I said, “I feel like the club doesn’t really want me here. I want to play football. I’d rather you sell me.”
Chelsea got nearly £20m for De Bruyne when he headed to Wolfsburg that January, a big increase on what they had paid, but now that he has returned to the Premier League to such brilliant effect with City each clash between the two sides is a huge reminder of what the Blues could have had.
Saturday’s meeting between the pair could see De Bruyne make his 10th Premier League appearance against Chelsea. In the previous nine, he has come out on the winning side six times, scoring four goals. Since he arrived at the Etihad, City have three titles to Chelsea’s one.
The Blues haven’t exactly struggled since De Bruyne left, but – like Mohamed Salah and Romelu Lukaku – the 30-year-old is another one of those players they clearly allowed to leave too soon. And whether Mourinho will ever admit it was an error or not, it is a move most Chelsea fans would still reverse in a second if they could.