The final whistle had just gone when Jack Grealish took aim from the edge of the centre circle. He lobbed his former team-mate Emi Martinez from 50 yards, finding the unguarded net. As goals that didn’t count against goalkeepers who weren’t trying go, it was impressive enough, but the strike of the night had come earlier.
Perhaps Bernardo Silva has been Manchester City’s anti-Grealish. The £100m man was desperate to join City in the summer, and attracted a record price. Silva, as Pep Guardiola revealed before the Community Shield, wanted to leave but there were no takers at an appropriate price. And while that fee has not been quoted, it would not have taken a nine-figure sum to prise him from the Etihad.
Since then, however, Grealish has underwhelmed while Silva has been outstanding. Few managers accumulate attacking midfielders like Guardiola but he has been the best. Injury limited Grealish to a bit-part role on his first return to Villa Park but it was fitting that Silva illuminated his homecoming. His magnificent goal had Guardiola punching the air in delight. Perhaps surprise, too, because Silva can be the consummate team player who rarely scores the spectacular and City are the side who specialise in passing moves that render the finish simple. This was a counter-attack so quick that even Ralf Rangnick would approve: a Fernandinho pass from the edge of his own box, a Gabriel Jesus cross, a virtuoso’s volley that borrowed more from Van Basten and Van Persie than a professional passer like his namesake and old team-mate David Silva. “An incredible finish,” said Guardiola. “Bernardo has a special ability to do with the ball whatever he wants.”
He has rarely done this but it was an illustration that few cushion a ball better: separated by seven days, Silva offered two very different examples, the deft, dainty assist for Jesus’ goal against Paris Saint-Germain and, when the favour was returned, the delicate, delightful volley. The technique was beautiful, but he was only in the position because he had burst in behind the Villa defence. He is part middle-distance athlete, part flair player.
His selflessness endears him to Guardiola. His tributes to Silva tend to be more frequent and more glowing than to anyone else. “He is a player on another level,” the Catalan said. Five City players picked up votes for the Ballon d’Or and Grealish is the most expensive footballer in Premier League history. Yet Guardiola had a two-word verdict for where Silva ranks in the division this season. “The best,” he said simply.
It is the second campaign when he believes Silva deserves the individual honours. “You have to go back two or three seasons when we made 98 points [in 2018-19],” he added. “He was the best too. Take the videos and you will see.” The various electorates did not concur with Guardiola, but he has been consistent in his view.
A relative lack of goals – with five to date, this is shaping up as Silva’s most productive season – helps explain why others tend to pick up the awards. Mohamed Salah must be the favourite to be named Footballer of the Year. But Silva is a frontrunner. Literally, too, in the sense his incessant running shows he can ally craft with graft and, more than ever before, he operates in attack. He has been the false nine. At Villa Park, he was more of a genuine one, the player who led the line, in between helping out the midfield and popping up on either flank. The wanderlust that tempted him to leave now allows him to excel all over the pitch.
Seven days earlier, he had outworked and outshone the most glitzy forward trio perhaps ever assembled. PSG had fielded a star-studded front three against City, in Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, but Silva was the finest attacker on the pitch. A player who outran them has an elusiveness that stems from perpetual movement. In the Manchester derby, the decisive Portuguese forward was Silva, not Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo and Messi topped the list of big-name attackers who moved in the summer. Grealish was the costliest. Yet the most significant transfer may prove to be the one that didn’t happen. No one bought Bernardo Silva. And every game makes Guardiola still more grateful for that.
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