One minute you’re starting every week, the next you’re sitting on the substitutes’ bench: such is your lot in life if you are one of Pep Guardiola’s many talented attacking players, all of them hostages to fortune on his roulette wheel of rotation.
Unless your name is Kevin De Bruyne, you can never really say you are “in” Manchester City’s starting line-up. But equally, you can never really say you are completely out of it either.
As the philosopher Boethius says in 24 Hour Party People, while momentarily down on his luck and homeless on the streets of Manchester: “Mutability is our tragedy but it’s also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away.”
Bernardo Silva knows this better than most. Two and a half years ago, he was the outstanding performer for the Premier League’s 98-point champions.
The following season started just as well, with a hat-trick in an 8-0 win over Watford, yet the very next day was the start of the controversy over his tweet to teammate Benjamin Mendy. After the misconduct charge, one-match ban and £50,000 fine which followed, his performances sharply declined.
Bernardo’s road back to playing brilliantly, as he did in Saturday’s 2-0 victory against Burnley, has been challenging and uncertain, and in some ways that uncertainty remains.
It was only two months ago that Guardiola was openly admitting in press conferences that the 27-year-old wanted to leave.
If several top European clubs had not been hamstrung in this summer’s pandemic-affected market, he would have departed and despite his renaissance, whether Bernardo will still be in Manchester this time next year is unclear.
Guardiola has been speaking of how Bernardo is “happier” recently, albeit with the odd hint that the Portuguese still needs fully convincing of his place long term.
“We know how we want him, how we love him,” the City manager said on Saturday. “I said many times in my last press conference, I want the best of them. They have to be happy to be here to perform well and he had that feeling, but [a transfer] could not be possible.”
Guardiola added: “I know there will be lows in this season because it’s impossible to maintain this level throughout the season, but I encourage him to be like this because I am pretty sure that playing at this level he will be happier and happier and he will enjoy being here with us."
Though it became an open secret this summer, Bernardo’s desire to leave could be dated back to last year, when Barcelona’s advances were seriously entertained. Back then, he had lost his starting place, opportunities were often coming in unfamiliar roles and he had only scored twice in 23 games.
There is almost a symmetry there with Raheem Sterling, who went public earlier this week with his own concerns about a lack of playing time under Guardiola, and is on a run of just two goals in 25 games for City.
Sterling’s second Premier League start of the season came in the win against Burnley and in an unnatural role.
A muted first-half performance as City’s false nine saw him moved out to a more natural wide role on the left wing, after which both he and his teammates improved, though the wait to regain his starting status is likely to go on.
Sterling is said to be happy to play as a false nine, or indeed in any position Guardiola requires, though believes he can only become familiar with the specific demands of the role by actually playing. It is a fair point.
Guardiola, however, rarely lets players learn on the job. In his praise of Bernardo, who has taken up a new holding midfield role when needed this season, he admitted his preference for players capable of doing whatever task is asked of them rather than specialists.
“There are players who can just play in this position. I am a winger, or a striker, or a holding midfielder or a central defender. Bernardo is a football player and the football players can play anywhere,” he said.
Guardiola insisted earlier this week that he does not use his dealings with the press to send messages to his players. Even so, it is clear how those words apply to Sterling’s situation: take the chances that you have, no matter what role you are given.
That can be difficult for talented players to accept, even when they are the ones starting regularly. Your next benching never feels too far away. Bernardo was asked indirectly about Sterling on Saturday. There was not a great deal of sympathy in his response, but there was empathy.
“It is tough when you don’t play the minutes that you want to,” he said. “It happened with me, it’s happened with most of the players here. It’s how it works. You have to go and fight for your place.”
They were the words of a player who knows the ups and down of playing – and, a lot of the time, not playing – under Guardiola. Bernardo’s revival proves there is a path back to being a regular starter again but it is far from straightforward.
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