Bernardo Silva stands outside definition and data as Pep Guardiola’s ‘unique’ conduit
Bernardo Silva had arrowed a shot past the hardest goalkeeper to beat in the Premier League this season. Nick Pope was the pontiff of clean sheets but Silva scored two minutes after his introduction. Pep Guardiola was more impressed by his other attributes. “To always take the ball between the legs, he has this incredible ability,” the Manchester City manager marvelled.
Guardiola has long found other ways of judging footballers. Goals and assists, he seems to suggest, are too simplistic a marker; he loves Silva and readily admits the Portuguese does not deliver many of either.
It may be harder to formulate a table of players who can take the ball between their legs. Silva was the super-sub who perhaps was not brought on to score; he just did anyway. “We decided to bring on Bernardo because he helps us to make possessions longer,” Guardiola said. “We needed to keep the ball and that is part of his intuition; to take the ball in the middle.”
What he has done less often is to put the ball in the net. City have scored 95 goals this season. Silva has just four of them. “Bernardo has never been a top scorer or top assister but he helps us to play better,” shrugged Guardiola. “You want statistics, go to big datas and, congratulations, you can write big articles. There are things that people don’t come for the data. Bernardo is unique to make all of us play better. The game is so quick in moments, sometimes it is necessary, sometimes not. Bernardo helps us to play in a different pausa, to after, make [an] explosion. Bernardo is unique in the world to help us do this.”
It highlighted Silva’s indirect impact. He is a player who can knit games together, whether by constant running or neat passing, by invariably being available or the tactical flexibility to operate as anything from a pseudo left-back or defensive midfielder to a right winger or a false nine.
Certainly he seems a player who will not judge himself by his goal tally. It was in keeping with Silva’s selflessness that, in a post-match interview, he was more effusive about Ederson’s 100th Premier League clean sheet and the “unstoppable” Phil Foden than his own strike.
And yet, despite Guardiola’s talk of big data, Silva’s numbers have never been smaller. Statistically, he has never been less potent for City, with four goals in 37 games this season; Newcastle may count themselves unfortunate that two came at their expense. He has two in four outings now, but only after a 28-game drought.
But it is part of a wider trend, of diminishing finishing from City’s midfielders. Silva was in double figures by this stage last season, aided by an autumn run of goals when playing as a false nine. He is one behind Kevin de Bruyne, who got his fifth goal of the season at Bristol City on Tuesday. The Belgian scored his tenth of last season on 6 March and there were a further nine to follow in the most prolific campaign of his career. Ilkay Gundogan is on three goals, whereas he had seven by the start of March last year and 13 at this point two seasons ago. It amounts to 12 goals from a trio who had 27 between them 12 months ago.
Gundogan has had a 25-game barren run, De Bruyne a run of 13 without scoring. Much of it has been camouflaged by the statistics Erling Haaland has assembled.
There is a case for arguing that he is getting their goals; if City’s goals are down slightly – with 95 in 40 games so far, compared to 102 in their first 40 last season – there is a shift from sharing the goals more liberally to fashioning them for one player.
Three very different technicians have adjusted. De Bruyne is the most obvious example, remodelling his game to adapt to the arrival. Scorer has become creator and his 17 assists are more than his eventual total for last season. But there is also a positional element: De Bruyne and Silva were both among the band of false nines Guardiola used and if neither was exactly a penalty-box poacher, they sometimes had a more advanced role that a true No.9 has rendered redundant.
In the two most productive seasons of his career, and the two when City rarely featured a specialist striker, Gundogan prospered with runs from deep into an empty box. Now, although Haaland has assisted two of his three goals, there is less scope to do so.
The false nine years were the apotheosis of Guardiola’s total football ethos, Johan Cruyff’s disciple borrowing from his mentor’s ideas and forging a team where the majority of them were midfielders, by skillset, training or background, and possible goalscorers.
City mustered 99 league goals last season, with the top scorer, De Bruyne, getting just 15; the previous year, it was 82 with Gundogan leading the way on 13. Now Haaland has 27 of 66. He has 41 per cent of their goals. It is a different model, a more conventional way of getting goals. Haaland can put the ball between the posts while Silva gets the ball between his legs.