The unmatched versatility of Bernardo Silva

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Last season, Guardiola unearthed a gem in Joao Cancelo, who played a variety of roles in his Man City side, most notably as an inverted left back. This move saw him regularly move into midfield in possession, alongside Rodri or Fernandinho. It gave Ilkay Gundogan license to move further forward, leading to a club-high 13 goals for the German. 

City’s fluidity in attack seemed to be at its peak, as it felt like all of their attack-minded players were comfortable in a multitude of roles. 

But, ultimately, they failed. They were beaten by Chelsea in the Champions League Final, and despite winning the league, they lost the most games by a Premier League champion (6) since 2013-14 (Pellegrini’s Manchester City).

Two things are different this season. 

The first is City’s shape in possession. Rather than just have Cancelo tuck into midfield to form a 3-2-5 shape in possession, Guardiola now has both Cancelo and Walker tuck in alongside Rodri, forming a 2-3-5 shape (below). Besides providing better passing lanes thanks to more bodies in the middle of the park, the 2-3-5 shape makes it easier to counterpress. By moving Cancelo and Walker more centrally and higher up, City now has a better chance to win the ball back in advanced areas when they lose it. That alone, conceptually, directly addresses their main weakness from last season: being susceptible to counter attacks. 

The second new development, and the reason for this piece, is the re-emergence of Bernardo Silva. The Portuguese midfielder has 7 goals and an assist in 15 Premier League games this season. He has been so good that people (or just tweeters) have actually debated who has been the best player in the Premier League so far this season. After City’s victory against Villa, Guardiola settled it for all of us, calling Silva “the  best” [player on form]. 

I’m not here to weigh in on Pep’s PR antics, nor am I here to settle any sort of debate. 

What I will do is highlight every role Bernardo Silva has played this season, and show you that he can play any midfield or attacking role at a world class level.

Bernardo Silva as a central midfielder one of the “roaming eights”

Most of Bernardo’s minutes this season have been played on the right side of City’s three-man midfield. From this sort of position, he’s been eye-catchingly effective at timing his late runs into the box, beyond just his ability to find pockets of space off the ball.

Last season saw Gundogan epitomize this sort of midfield role, with De Bruyne, Foden, or Silva playing alongside him and Rodri. The fact that Cancelo tucked in so often gave him the freedom to make runs from deep, between the lines and beyond the defense. De Bruyne spent more time out wide, giving himself space to find a pass, while giving whoever was playing forward space to drop in his place.   

With Walker now also inverting (as opposed to tucking in as the third center back), Gundogan and Silva’s roles are essentially identical. Both spend most of their time rotating with the wingers and full-backs to create overloads out wide, and pick the right times to get forward into the box. They are both constantly moving to manipulate the opposition’s structure, therefore creating space for teammates. They often both get into the box (below), further proving the symmetrical nature of the new system. 

Gundogan specializes in smart movement and quick interplay, but there is a clear relaxed nature to the way he plays. He doesn’t move the quickest, but rather uses his footballing brain to pick up good positions and facilitate controlled possession. 

Bernardo does those same things, but at a much faster pace. He has this high-energy motor that he can turn on whenever he wants, as if he was flipping a switch. The beauty of a switch is that you can flip it on and off as you please, but not all footballers are able to do that. 

Guardiola calls this La Pausa: the ability to understand the tempo of the game, mixing up the directness and speed of your movements. It’s something Xavi and Iniesta embodied (no surprise), and that Phil Foden is still learning

Bernardo Silva has it. While many of his best moments come from being able to play quickly and carry the ball upfield (he ranks in the 99th percentile for progressive carries against all top five league midfielders, wingers, and forwards), he has a distinct ability to wait for openings and deliver measured passes (below). 

The weighted and incisive pass is one we associate with Kevin De Bruyne, who has been out injured for a majority of the season. When he plays, I can’t help but notice that the City players often defer creative responsibility to him. He shoulders this burden to make the perfect pass every time. That doesn’t occur when Bernardo plays the role. He is far more workmanlike. If something isn’t on, he vacates space and waits for his turn to touch the ball (below). 

In Pep’s new setup with symmetrical 8s, Kevin De Bruyne won’t always play ahead of Bernardo Silva – something we may have assumed prior to this season. There has to be room for Bernardo.

Bernardo Silva as a right winger – an outlet that brings others into play

At Monaco, Bernardo was a typical modern-day right winger that would cut inside onto his stronger left foot. When he moved to City, he still fulfilled that role for the first season or two. At some point, Pep realized what sort of talent he had his hands on, and moved him into midfield. 

Pep also recently admitted his love for traditional wingers who stay wide and get to the byline, something Bernardo does not necessarily provide. 

That being said, whereas you might imagine the likes of Riyad Mahrez or Raheem sterling would better meet his criteria for the role, they haven’t featured that often this season. Pep has opted for Gabriel Jesus as that touchline winger frequently, who plays on the same side as Bernardo. 

Jesus knows that Bernardo will drift wide to create an overload (below). He is coached to move inside and occupy the left back, making room for Bernardo. More often than not, Bernardo finds himself in space to either make a final third entry, or to simply recycle the ball to the other side. The situation dictates the outcome. 

As City attack with their front five, Bernardo occupies the space between the center back and left back. When he drops back and out, he drags the defender out with him. That opens a clear passing lane to Jesus in behind, one that Walker found against Norwich (below) for Sterling’s goal. 

In this City system that encourages so many rotations, Bernardo’s low center of gravity and disguised dribbling ability (dare I say it, Messi-esque) allows him to be effective out wide. THAT dribble against Liverpool must be popping in your head right about now. If not, here it is. He can wriggle his way out of tight spaces before releasing a teammate who is in more space, as he did for Foden on that occasion.

His minutes at right wing have been lessened this season due to his importance in midfield and the emergence of Jesus as a wide option, but Pep relies on him out there when City are holding onto a lead.

Against Leicester, in early September, Pep subbed on Fernandinho for Jesus, and pushed Bernardo wide. Bernardo’s job was to basically make sure City retained possession of the ball when they got it to him. He was a safety valve that his teammates could rely on while Leicester were pressing incessantly. Here’s what that looked like: 

He pinned Bertrand and sent Fernandinho through towards the byline. Had that been any other City attacker, that situation turns into a chance. 

Bernardo Silva as a pseudo forward (I won’t dare call it a false nine)

Against Manchester United, Bernardo lined up as the lone forward on the team sheet, as City welcomed De Bruyne back from injury. United sat back and defended with a back five, offering very little threat to City’s setup.

De Bruyne moved into space in wide areas quite frequently (the same ones Bernardo gets into when he plays there), and continuously found Bernardo through the lines. From just around the penalty area, he would find a way to turn and face the United defenders up, before aggressively entering the box (below).

These types of moments kept United on the back foot, and enabled City to keep up sustained pressure. It eventually led to Bailly’s own goal (which Silva probably would have scored had Bailly missed the ball).  

Bernardo was a pest. That’s how I described his performance. It wasn’t this majestic masterclass where he didn’t miss a single pass, but he played the forward role in a way that no other City attacker could have. His high energy and pressure caused danger, and he eventually scored a goal because of it (below). It wasn’t the prettiest, but it personified his will to make the United defenders uncomfortable. 

A player that small, who isn’t necessarily known for his shooting, shouldn’t be that effective as a forward – but I guess I was wrong for assuming so.

Bernardo Silva as a tenacious defensive midfielder

Against Chelsea, in late September, City appeared to set up in their usual setup, with De Bruyne and Bernardo either side of Rodri. But it didn’t play out like that. 

Chelsea played a different formation than they usually do, with two strikers and three midfielders, as opposed to three attackers (two behind Lukaku) and two midfielders. They looked to go man-to-man on City’s midfield. 

Bernardo dropped deeper (below), and De Bruyne ended up playing as more of a traditional ten. Bernardo drifted wide like he usually would further up the pitch, but instead of rotating with the winger, he rotated with Walker. This gave him time and space to the side of Chelsea’s narrow three-man midfield. He used Rodri as a wall for one-twos as he conducted the build-up play from side to side.  

The pest-like performance we saw against United was mirrored, this time in midfield, as he constantly broke up Chelsea’s moves. He poked the ball away from Lukaku (I would say tackled but it felt more gentle than that) on several occasions, and pressed both Jorginho and Kovacic relentlessly. He headed the ball away to relieve City of pressure, and spearheaded attacks the other way.

Post match, Guardiola said this about his performance: “He’s so intuitive, it’s not his role as a holding midfielder but he knows perfectly (and) anticipates what is going to happen, with and without the ball.” Pep was full of praise for Bernardo, but sounded so exasperated that the reporter was surprised by his performances.

It’s probably true that he has been this sort of player for a long time. His underlying numbers this year aren’t necessarily that much better than they have been in the past. It just feels so rare to have a player that can fulfill such a multitude of roles at such a high level. 

It makes it all the more confusing that City were reportedly willing to sell him in the summer. But then again, Pep’s comments make it seem like that was never the case. Bernardo Silva has been their most important player this season.

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