Bernardo Silva was protecting Manchester City from Liverpool’s counters as he stood just outside of the box to prevent any clearances from turning into a quick transition as his side attacked. Instead, Silva chested down Virgil van Dijk’s header and patiently probed around Gini Wijnaldum, throwing in a customary feint before delivery a ball to Sergio Aguero for the games opening goal. Down seven points heading into the January match between the top two sides in the league, City’s 2-1 win was a pivotal moment in their title-winning season. And in addition to his assist, 10 ball recoveries, and four interceptions, Silva’s 8.51 miles ran against Liverpool was the most distance any player covered this season in a match. The performance was indicative of Silva’s importance this season, and why many thought he should have won the PFA Player of the Year. The 24-year-old may simultaneously be City’s most creative player and their most industrious.
“I haven’t seen a performance like that in a while,” said Pep Guardiola on Silva’s Liverpool display. One could devote a Twitter account with just Guardiola’s praise for Silva this season. “Masterpiece” is Guardiola’s favorite description for Silva’s impact. He first used the term after his performance against Chelsea in the Community Shield to start the season, adding that City consisted of “Bernardo and 10 more players.” After playing holding midfielder in a 2-0 win over Manchester United, Guardiola added that Silva’s entire season was a “masterpiece” for his ability to create chances anywhere on the field while simultaneously battling larger opponents. Silva can find pockets of space in between the lines of opposition defenses off the ball, but he can also create space with his dribbling or his ability to win back the ball.
Although this ability to craft a masterpiece throughout a season almost never happened as he struggled to distinguish himself throughout Benfica’s youth academy due to his slight frame. His manager with Benfica’s U-17s has a pragmatic explanation for Silva’s intuitive ability: he had to focus on avoiding physical challenges due to his small physique, which is why he’s always “two or three steps ahead” of opponents when he gets on the ball. Silva admitted that his lack of size worked against him even at a youth academy as vaunted as Benfica. In fact, he recalls a pivotal moment in which he enrolled in college at 18 years old, ready to leave the game behind for his studies. Even the world’s best playmakers need time to develop.
Yet every hero’s story involves our main character overcoming an adversity that eventually ends up defining them. Silva moved to Monaco for $17 million in 2015 after playing just one senior side match at Benfica. Under Leonardo Jardim, that era of Monaco remains one of of the most memorable sides of this decade, featuring a golden generation of young talents including Silva, Kylian Mbappe, Benjamin Mendy, Fabinho, and Tiemoue Bakayoko. And even amongst those names, he stood out. Mendy described him as a “bubble gum” footballer for the way that the ball stuck to his foot. Fabinho said that Silva was the most important player on the side.
Monaco went on a run to the Champions League semifinals in 2016, with Silva cutting in from the right wing to provide the creativity for Mbappe and Falcao up front. That competition also included Guardiola experiencing Silva’s ability first hand, with Monaco beating Manchester City 6-6 on away goals in the round of 16. It is interesting to look at that City lineup today, as the starting front 6 of Fernandinho, Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, and Sergio Aguero are still with the club. Only John Stones remains of the backline.
After losing to Juventus in the semifinals, Silva implored his teammates to stay together one more season in order to have another chance of a deep European run. Though the reality of the modern game quickly hit. Silva, Mendy, Mbappe, and Bakayoko would all leave within a matter of months. Fabinho would leave a year later. Jardim would be fired and re-hired as Monaco struggled to stay above the relegation zone. Silva, meanwhile, found permanence with City. Guardiola said that the midfielder “will stay with me” as long as he’s manager, while his teammates expect Silva to take on even more responsibility in the future.
“I would like to hand it over to Phil because I think he deserves it, he’s so young, he’s a fantastic player,” gushed Silva after handing the Man of the Match award to teammate Phil Foden after Foden scored the match-winner in their 1-0 win over Tottenham.
The gritty win came just days after their devastating loss against Mauricio Pochettino’s side that knocked them out of the Champions League. Guardiola admitted that it would take City some time to recover, but there was still a title race to be won. Silva’s personality and character lead Vincent Kompany to mark him as the future captain of Manchester City after he departs. Sterling credited Silva’s signing as the turning point in his City career, citing the increase in competition as a winger. Those intangibles have also impressed Noel Gallagher, who compared Silva’s heart and desire to win the ball to Carlos Tevez.
Guardiola labeled the 2019 Premier League as the most difficult title he’s won in his career. Since losing to Newcastle in late January, City won 14 consecutive league matches to close out the season and were still only able to create a one-point separation between themselves and Liverpool. And beyond winning 198 points over two seasons, Guardiola said that City will be even better next season. The comments weren’t made in arrogance, but as a matter of fact observation that every Premier League side will continue to spend money this summer. The competition never ceases.
In defining what makes the Premier League so unique compared to other leagues, Silva attributed it to the flow of the match. He says that elsewhere, you may play just 60 minutes out of the full 90 due to various starts and stops, whereas in England, you must play for 80 minutes. There are lessons we can take in watching Silva play in that added time. Recalling many of the midfielders he’s worked with throughout his managerial career, Guardiola said that Silva proves how “you don’t have to be taller or more physical” in order to make an impact on the game. Sometimes, genius will do.