The unparalleled vista of Kevin De Bruyne

The Red Devils’ performance at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar will depend a lot on Kevin De Bruyne’s form. If he is one of the best midfielders in the world, he owes it in part to a little-known aspect of his game: his vision on the pitch.

Romelu Lukaku sprints on the right flank, penetrates the opposing sixteen meters, and passes the ball to Kevin De Bruyne in ambush. Who seems to be preparing to fire a cannonball. But he does nothing: in one movement, he puts three defenders in the wind, to offer a millimeter assist to a surging Thorgan Hazard who only has to put the ball in the back of the net.

This goal allowed Belgium to win a draw against Denmark at the Euro football a year and a half ago. We undoubtedly owe it to the vista of De Bruyne, who seems to have a sixth sense for guessing in which position one of his teammates will appear.

“De Bruyne ‘scans’ the pitch constantly to assess positions and available spaces.”

Geir Jordet

Norwegian teacher

For the Norwegian professor Geir Jordet, no need to invoke a supernatural talent to explain this gift of Kevin De Bruyne, an essential element of his game. “He has neither a second pair of eyes behind his back nor a brain capable of analyzing drone images. permanently to assess available positions and spaces.” A quality that seems essential for good players, but in which the player from Tronchiennes is a past master, if we are to believe the research of Geir Jordet, associated with the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences.

The hub – or should we say now, “control tower” – of the Red Devils and Manchester City, one of the flagship clubs of the English Premier League, in any case boasts stunning statistics (see graph) : in each match, he manages to make the difference in a single decisive maneuver, at the very least. At the World Cup in Qatar, nothing less than one of the best midfielders of his generation will be lined up for Belgium’s first group match against Canada on Wednesday. If, during this World Cup, Belgium achieves a more exhilarating course than specialists expect, we will owe it more than ever to this 31-year-old superstar.

Talent beyond the ball at the foot

De Bruyne’s performances with the ball are based on a golden triangle: his excellent technical qualities, his exceptional physique and his tactical knowledge.

“The gift of scanning in football is to look away from the ball before you receive it to prepare yourself for the action you will take once it is in your possession.”

Geir Jordet

Associated with the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences

But in addition, when he moves without the ball, the cognitive habit of constantly scanning its surroundings. Geir Jordet defines this skill in these terms: “to look away from the ball before receiving it to prepare you for the action you will take once it is in your possession”.

This goes against the intuition of many players, even at the highest level, assures us Geir Jordet in an interview conducted from Oslo. “Everyone has their eyes on the ball. The spectators, of course, but also a lot of great players. While the art of playing football well is to collect information. And knowingly looking away is a physical action to capture that information on your retina.”

Kevin De Bruyne, prince of the land, surrounded by King Philippe and coach Roberto Martinez, this Thursday.

De Bruyne sees better and faster than other players, commentators proclaim. Which is also true. But it goes beyond that. “It is not enough to analyze the space well, it is also necessary to imagine the action that must follow. And, of course, you must have the foot that can receive the ball at the right time and in the right place. He is the player he is thanks to a combination of factors. But, among the latter, his capacity for observation is not to be underestimated.”

Geir Jordet finds this all the more interesting aswe can quantify it, and thus have a good estimate of a player’s vision. He has been studying the psychology and cognitive qualities of footballers for more than 20 years. The student he was in the 1990s would take a VHS camera to the freezing stadiums of Norway to film a single player for 90 minutes and then sift through the footage to analyze how he looked around him. His research was accelerated when he got his hands in 2010 on stacks of DVDs from a TV channel that had pointed its cameras at 118 Premier League players – so before De Bruyne made any Sparks. These images provided him with a wealth of information. And confirmation that decisive players are the best “scanners”. Frank Lampard, the Chelsea midfielder, was at the top of these “fine observers” at the time, followed by his teammate in the English national team, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard.

Spin off

At first, football coaches did not take Geir Jordet’s research seriously, he recalls. Not anymore. Today, he even records players’ eye movements and advises several top clubs, which he does not wish to name, based on his scan analyses. He also created the spinoff Be Your Best, which aims to improve the vista of players by offering them to train with virtual reality (VR) glasses that simulate game situations.. When a player manages to scan the field longer and more frequently, he succeeds more forward passes and thus performs better. This is one of the main conclusions of scientific research conducted by the Norwegian.

“Xavi was constantly looking left and right on the pitch. I think he also has to scan the hallway from top to bottom when he goes to the bathroom at night.”

Geir Jordet

Associated with the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences

Jordet’s analysis essentially focuses on how and how many times a player looks around in the ten seconds before receiving the ball. The footballer that Jordet has studied and does the most is the Spaniard Xavi, who won everything with Barcelona and his country between 2005 and 2015. He looked around on average 8.3 times during those ten seconds. “He was constantly looking left and right. I think he must also scan the hallway from top to bottom when he goes to the toilet at night,” laughs the Norwegian.

So far, Geir Jordet has analyzed three De Bruyne games from start to finish, including the Champions League quarter-final against Atletico Madrid last season. The Belgian arrives at an average of 5.6 scans. It is better, for example, than the Croatian Luka Modric, but less than his German teammate Ilkay Gündogan. Its frequency is therefore very high, but not exceptional, shade Geir Jordet. In reality, it’s other qualities that make it extraordinary. “De Bruyne is a midfielder who usually plays higher up the pitch. In this position, the frequency of player scans drops significantly. But not at home.”

After his debut for the Devils in 2010, Kevin De Bruyne quickly became a pillar of the national team.

It is above all his repertoire of scans which, according to Jordet, makes the difference. Most elite players look around a lot less when under pressure from opponents, when they receive the ball. But not De Bruyne. “He keeps looking around just as often when he has little space, despite the risk of losing the ball due to poor control. It’s almost unique.”

Micro scans

De Bruyne also regularly drops back, close to his own goal, to be able to receive the ball with more space in front of him. In this position, he can thus turn his head for several seconds, diverting his gaze from the ball, for successive panoramic sweeps.

“He is one of the players who best exploits the time interval between touches of the ball, so when nothing new can happen, to scan the pitch.”

Geir Jordet

Associated with the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences

“He has a very functional way of collecting information about his environment. He is one of the players who best exploits the time interval between ball touches, so when nothing new can happen, to scan the ground.” And then, it also performs “micro-scans” as Geir Jordet calls them: a concealed way of forming an image, with rapid eye movements, without revealing one’s intentions. “His eyes constantly challenge his brain. Another player who practices it extensively is Messi.”

“Football is simple, but playing football simply is the most difficult thing”, said Johan Cruijff in his time. Does this also apply to De Bruyne and other great players? In this regard, the comments that come to Jordet’s ears are very diverse. Some players are acutely aware of their observational actions on the pitch. Frank Lampard thus told Jordet that his father, on the sidelines, constantly encouraged him to “take pictures” of the field. Jordet never spoke with De Bruyne. But a journalist once asked him if he was aware of the Norwegian professor’s research. De Bruyn fell from the clouds. “His answer made it clear that he was scanning the terrain mindlessly, unconsciously. But when you hear him talking about his vision, he seems to have a very sophisticated awareness of space and dynamics between players.”

The unparalleled vista of Kevin De Bruyne