Watching a certain Bernardo Silva run rings around the likes of Manchester City and Tottenham in the Champions League would certainly have whetted the appetites of many top clubs of Europe. The little Portuguese, who often seems to play like a fuse of David Silva and Lionel Messi, has got this unerring knack for lifting you off your seat and rattle defenders with glimpses of vivacity and verve. His physique hardly oozes dominance, but it’s his panache that is enough to do that.
His exploits at Stade Louis II during the recently concluded Ligue 1 campaign meant fans of every top European club would have loved to have the 22-year-old in their side, but it’s obvious that his move to the Etihad will force many into casting jealous glances at the side from lower Manchester. A host of clubs, including city rivals Manchester United, were tracking the starlet’s progress and had expressed excitement on learning that Bernardo had landed in Manchester before he ended up signing for the Citizens.
He’s a player that every top club would have wanted, but it’s the Premier League fans who will be fearing the worst. But this could be a signing that could well go onto forever alter what the Premier League is known for.
It hasn’t exactly been the most smoothest of starts to life at a new club for Pep Guardiola, having only qualified for the top four. It wasn’t really what the former Bayern Munich and Barcelona would have set out for when their campaign kicked off at home to David Moyes’ Sunderland. The opening game of the campaign itself seemed like an almighty struggle to come through for the men from the Etihad, as Sunderland looked happy to concede possession and get men behind the ball to frustrate them. A Paddy McNair own goal proved to be the difference, but the win was more unconvincing than anyone would have imagined.
As the campaign wore on, Guardiola’s side struggled when the opposition pressed them high up the pitch, with their 2-0 loss to Tottenham serving as the perfect testimony to that. The hammering at the hands of Barcelona around a week later saw the same problem crop up, as Luis Suarez ran rings around a defence that failed to nullify the high-press. The uncanny usage of Aleksandar Kolarov at centre-half showed how Guardiola was looking for someone to play out from the back or ping long balls to wide areas. John Stones struggled and Nicolas Otamendi hardly got to grips with playing alongside a man who is yet to establish himself in the first-team.
Another game that went onto typify City’s struggles against the high-press was their 4-0 sauntering at Goodison Park. Tom Davies ran the midfield and backline ragged with his energy and never looked like allowing anyone to play their midfielders in. One weakness in the side was made to look obvious, when they tried to dominate possession, but harking back to Guardiola’s time at Barcelona would suggest that he was fumbling over something else as well.
It was more than just a case of dominating possession and killing teams off with it. The Catalans made sure that they had as much space as possible when on the ball, which needed players who can play between lines. Lionel Messi, who has Guardiola to thank for his emergence back in 2009, operated between the midfield and attacking lines while being deployed as a false number nine. Sergio Busquets operated on opening up passing lanes between the defence and the midfield, often carrying the ball out of the defence. Gerard Pique, performed the job of a ball-playing defender; the job that Guardiola wants Stones to play at City.
Pique’s passing abilities allowed Guardiola’s side to build from the back in a perfect sense. The Spaniard could carry the ball into midfield and allow the forward accompanying players freedom to make triangular runs forward and allow the side an extra man while pressing the opposition.
Messi dropped off to often play as a number ten, allowing the wingers to drift in and overload the box. It was Messi’s role up front that made Barcelona look like a fearsome and cohesive unit. The little Argentine used to weave his magic around opposition defences, running directly at them with the ball from deeper areas. But it was his ability to play between the midfield and forward line that made the Catalans an unbeatable unit.
Bernardo Silva has drawn comparisons to Messi himself, thanks to his showings at Monaco and previously at Benfica. He was used on the right of a free-flowing 4-4-2 by Leonardo Jardim and had the freedom to impose himself on the pitch due to the presence of a reliable right-back in Djibril Sidibe. He drifted in, hugged the touchline, created and scored. His balance on the ball, control on it and pace does remind one of Messi.
Jardim’s system wasn’t as possession oriented as Guardiola’s at Barcelona, but what the Spaniard doesn’t have at his disposal at City is someone who can play between the attacking and midfield lines. Stones is slowly being moulded into the Pique-esque defender and the duo of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling too are becoming the direct, space-finding wingers that Guardiola likes. His possession oriented style defined the Spanish style of playing more than anyone else and the nation has adhered to the same style since then.
Defensive issues have been a concern and that’s the second thing that this side lacks, apart from a player who can play between the lines. Bernardo isn’t someone who will play up front, especially with the duo of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus in the side. He will play down the right-flank, look to create things and drift in from deeper regions- something he did at Les Monégasques. And that’s the kind of Lionel Messi-esque player that Guardiola would yearn for at City.
And the media has been at Guardiola’s back for not realising the ‘might’ of the Premier League and for always clinging onto his own style. It hasn’t quite settled in, but players like John Stones and Raheem Sterling have been dubbed to be the future stars of England for quite sometime now. Their usages in the Guardiola system will be vital to how City fare and for that, Bernardo would have to don the Messi role. Once the system kicks in at City, players like Sterling and Stones will become just the kind of technically adept players that Guardiola loves.
With the emergences of teams that like to adhere to the counter-pressing and high-pressing styles, the success of this style can witness the birth a new style in the Premier League; a style that has never worked out too well before. Bernardo’s ability to play the role of the link between the attack and midfield will be just as key as the other signings that Pep brings in this summer. And one way or another, the bigger puzzle that Bernardo completes will leave behind an undeniable legacy at a league that needs a tactical identity, if not the country itself.