Much of the discussion before kickoff on Saturday centered around Pep Guardiola playing Rodri and Fernandinho, players usually utilized in defensive midfield, as City’s center-back pairing. It was a big decision, and Guardiola ‘s faith in those players was rewarded with a clean sheet. However, another interesting selection was made by Pep farther up the field.
For just the third time this season (and the 21st time altogether) Bernardo Silva, David Silva, and Kevin De Bruyne all featured in the starting XI. It should come as no surprise that all three had a role to play in City scoring twice and picking up three vital points. Bernardo provided a brilliant cross for Gabriel Jesus to score the opener. And just over a minute later, a trademark surging run and forward ball from De Bruyne helped set up an eventual David Silva goal.
Of course, performances like these have become the norm for all three. This is reflected in each of them being awarded the club’s Player of the Year award over Guardiola’s first three seasons in charge. Indeed, most supporters would have a difficult time excluding any of them from their preferred XI. So why haven’t they had the opportunity to play together more often?
Really, it is down to a combination of factors. Bernardo Silva arrived in the summer of 2017 with great expectations. He had done brilliantly to help AS Monaco to a Ligue 1 title, as well as a deep run in the Champions League knockout rounds. Having played a key role in knocking City out of the Champions League, supporters were well aware of Bernardo’s ability upon his arrival.
Yet, like most players coming to a new club (and a new country, with a new language), Bernardo needed time to settle in. Leroy Sané had already been at the club for a season, establishing himself alongside Raheem Sterling, David Silva, and De Bruyne in the starting XI. However, Bernardo was given the opportunity to play often as a sub or when rotation was needed. By the end of the season he had grown visibly more comfortable at the club, and he would get his opportunity in the season to come.
Unfortunately, that chance came in the form of Kevin De Bruyne missing large chunks of the season with various injury issues. De Bruyne had been the driving force behind City’s Centurion season, and his long absences might have been troubling if not for the brilliant performances of Bernardo. In effect, City were able to simply replace one Player of the Year with another. The result was only two points less in the league, with an historic domestic treble to boot.
All the while, City were able to rely on the understated excellence of their original playmaking genius in David Silva. In spite of missing some matches in 2017-18 due to personal matters, Silva still managed to be named in the PFA Team of the Year.
Of course, the great strength of this club over the past few years is that no individual player has been totally irreplaceable. Yet, on the rare occasion these three have had the opportunity to play together, they have arguably gone to an even higher level. In the 21 matches they’ve started together the Citizens have won 19 (or 20, depending how you evaluate wins via penalty kicks).
Even the two exceptions to this otherwise perfect record come with caveats. The League Cup Final win last year against Chelsea was scoreless after 120 minutes, but City still went on to lift the trophy after having won the shootout. From a record-keeping perspective some may classify it as a draw, but supporters will only care that the club took home the cup.
The other caveat applies to the 2-1 second leg loss to Liverpool in the Champions League knockout rounds in 2018. The circumstances of the match (having lost the first leg 3-0) meant that the Sky Blues had no choice but to push to score at least three goals, and in doing so left themselves vulnerable to conceding themselves. Therefore, the result of that match alone requires the context of the first leg (which Bernardo did not feature in).
Yet, even with those two results included, 19 wins and one draw from 21 matches would be good for about 105 points if prorated over a 38 game league season. Even for a special club like City, that is hugely impressive.
Some clubs trying to play three playmakers together may struggle to find the right balance. But these three have enough variation in their skill sets that they compliment each other well, rather than being redundant.
David Silva is the most traditional playmaker of the three. He gets in between the lines, and threads passes through the gaps in the back line. When a team sits deep with numbers behind the ball, he is still the one most likely to find the gap and create chances.
Kevin De Bruyne perhaps best exemplifies what is expected of a modern midfield creator. He drops deep to help build from the back. He drifts wide to find space and swing crosses behind the back line. He always looks to play the killer pass early, and makes City lethal on counterattacks.
Bernardo Silva is the one with the biggest bag of tricks. When out on the wing he often invites defenders to challenge him one on one. From there he can dance past them, or open up space to deliver a cross or slotted ball for a teammate. He’s also comfortable playing in the middle as well, and his versatility is key for the Citizens.
The only shame of all this is that we haven’t gotten to see more of it. Bernardo arrived in 2017, and we already know that David will be leaving next summer. Perhaps when we look back years from now we will regard this three year period, where this brilliant trio played together, as a special period in the history of the club. That each of the last two season resulted in historic achievements only reinforces that belief.
2018-19: Domestic Treble
It seems the only appropriate end to this era (with David Silva’s imminent departure) would be a Champions League title, wouldn’t it?