Burnout, Bans, and Tactics: What’s going on with Bernardo Silva?
This time last year, Bernardo Silva was on top of the world having just ended the most decorated year of his career. A domestic clean sweep with Manchester City, topped off with Portugal’s win of the inaugural UEFA Nations League trophy meant that he finished the season with five major honours - a feat that could not be topped by any other player in Europe.
Individually, his season wasn’t half bad either. Filling the seemingly unfillable boots of the often injured Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo was Manchester City’s Player of the Season, and was even nominated for the league’s PFA prize too, receiving much praise for his revitalisation in a central midfield role. This was a feat he managed to repeat internationally, this time taking up a more familiar role on the right hand side of the midfield, beating out fellow teammate Cristiano Ronaldo to claim the first ever Nations League Player of the Tournament prize. By the end of 2019, nobody could begrudge him of his 9th place Ballon D’or finish - Bernardo had truly become one of the world’s elite midfielders.
So as Manchester City looked to obtain their third successive Premier League title, it seemed that Bernardo had become the world class talent that they had invested £43.5 million; and under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, nobody would have bet against him kicking on again.
His positional versatility combined with trickery on the ball, and tenacity of it made him the ideal Guardiola midfielder. Countless stellar central performances placed him in pole position to take over the role of midfield mastery from his namesake David Silva, as he entered the final season of his legendary Premier League career.
Fast forward a year and Bernardo has endured what has been the most problematic season of his career to date, and many City fans are bemused as to why he has not kicked on, with many believing he has - in fact - taken a step backwards.
Of course, to say he has gone backwards does him a great disservice, judging on the fact that he has by no means had a horror season, but so fickle is the modern football fan that hyperbole seems to accompany any and every narrative. And while it’s hard to discredit the fact that his influence on the side has certainly curtailed, there are numerous external factors indicative of Manchester City’s bizarre league campaign that may have induced this.
Statistically, Bernardo is a pressing phenomenon. His blend of superb creative acumen and tireless pressing intensity makes his skillset unparalleled to any of his midfield counterparts. Last season, he completed an astonishing 767 pressures; couple this with the fact that only goalkeeper Ederson and defensive ever-present Aymeric Laporte completed more minutes than him in the league, could Bernardo simply be suffering from a burnout?
Firstly, the concept of a professional footballer suffering a ‘burnout’ is always a tough pill for fans to swallow. And sure, professional athletes are conditioned to be, well... professional athletes! But with the sheer volume of games played at the intensity he plays them at, the chances of some form of a burnout or injury matures from a possibility to a probability.
International duties also meant that Bernardo got little to no time off for rest and recuperation during the summer, after a long and exacting season in which he played nearly 70 times. But be that as it may, while the theory stands credible that Bernardo may have suffered from a burnout of sorts, his early season form suggests otherwise. A hat trick in the 8-0 drubbing of Watford in September was the headline act from a string of decent performances, and while he wasn’t pulling up any trees, there was no indication of any early season hangover.
His season then was completely derailed by off the field troubles, as he was charged with “aggravated misconduct” by the FA in relation to a controversial tweet towards teammate Benjamin Mendy. Regardless of his eventual fine and one game suspension, the effects of having his name dragged through the dirt by the media unsettled he and the club as a whole. However as the Premier League has finally come to a close, enough time has passed - with enough quality Bernardo performances along the way - for that to be a forgotten chapter of a troublesome season.
Potentially the most reliable explanation as to why Bernardo has played a bit part role in Manchester City’s season compared to his colossal influence on the season prior, is a tactical one. Of course, like the many issues that City have faced this season, the Bernardo issue is multifaceted, and it is impossible to quantify how big an influence the exterior factors explored earlier have had. However, the one thing we can quantify is the statistics.
So, what do the statistics connote? Well, before we get to that part, first we must add some context and explain the tactical changes to Manchester City’s midfield this season:
The Aymeric Laporte chain reaction, and the ‘Rodri Plan’.
Firstly, Manchester City like Rodri, Pep Guardiola likes Rodri - they don’t have any issues with Rodri. They always knew it was going to take him a season or two to bed in properly, and with the pivot man or number six role being perhaps the most important position in City’s system, the transition from Fernandinho (who made the role his own) to a younger (and much different stylistically) Rodri was never going to be seamless.
Ever since Manchester City’s Centurions season, they’ve targeted a Fernandinho replacement, yet never decided to go for a Fernandinho style player. Partly, this is because that player either didn't exist or simply wasn’t a viable option at the time. Instead, City targeted players in the Sergio Busquets mould; missing out on Jorginho and Frenkie De Jong. In short, they knew better than anyone that Manchester City’s evolution from a Fernandinho reliant side would take time and patience. By virtue of this, City had most likely planned to ease Rodri in gently, while still using Gundogan and Fernandinho in the more difficult games. Unfortunately, the Rodri Plan hit its first bump in the road before it even began, with City’s failure to replace departing legend Vincent Kompany with Leicester’s Harry Maguire, much to the dissatisfaction of Pep Guardiola. Wether this was due to a lack of proper planning, or a lack of suitable alternatives, City entered the season without their Kompany replacement. Then: disaster struck.
“It’ll be fine...” said the seldom Manchester City optimist, as Aymeric Laporte was ruled out for the best part of five months; “we got 100 points with Stones and Otamendi at the back!” Then: Norwich happened. Suddenly the ‘Rodri Plan’ took a backseat, and Plan ‘what on earth do we do with the defence’ ascended the list of priorities. It turned out that their solution was Fernandinho at centre back, meaning Rodri was to play every major game as City’s only other defensive midfielder.
Uncharacteristically of a Pep team, City stopped pressing as much. Perhaps it was an intentional ploy to try and leave a makeshift defence less exposed, or perhaps it was a lack of motivation as their title challenge evaporated before their very eyes. The truth is, that we will never know the truth; but what the drop off in pressing did lead to was much more traffic through central areas, and a reliance on City to force turnovers in the middle third, rather than the front. Rodri was being overrun, and without great pace of the understanding of the role that Fernandinho had mastered, help was required, especially in the bigger games.
Through large parts of the season, the way City combatted Rodri’s deficiencies was by deploying a more reserved game controlling midfielder along side him. In the tougher games, City have used Gundogan in a 4-2-3-1 like formation. In the easier games, David Silva has played in more familiar 4-3-3, while still operating in a more reserved role; with Kevin De Bruyne being the obvious ever present in the advanced midfield spot.
This was their second high profile tactical change of the season, as they desperately attempted to plug their Laporte sized whole in defence. Although on the face of it, Manchester City’s struggles have been in both boxes this season, with the midfield still operating to a necessary standard. However, the various adjustments to the system have been undeniably to the detriment of last seasons star man -Bernardo Silva - who has played less than 500 minutes in central areas this campaign, compared to over 1700 minutes in the last. When he has played through the middle, his role has been much different to his role in midfield last season. With De Bruyne operated as the most advanced playmaker, Bernardo has been forced to play much more reserved, in a controlling role, rather than the all-action creative role from last season; and such is the level of consistently world class performances from Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo has little chance of playing his way into his preferred position on a regular basis.
The deployment of a deeper midfielder has meant that City have required more creativity in wide areas, which - when Bernardo has played wide - has led to him producing some of his best creative numbers in a City shirt. As seen by the two graphs above, his influence in central areas (highlighted in green) has significantly declined from last season, while his creative influence from wide areas (highlighted in blue) has seen a massive spike.
But despite Bernardo’s fantastic underlying numbers from the wing (highlighted in green below), Pep also expects prolific contributions to goals and assists from this area - something that Riyad Mahrez (highlighted in blue below) has provided in abundance, with the Algerian reaching double figures for both goals and assists, while still proving to be more creative.
The important thing to remember here is that Bernardo’s versatility should not be used as a stick to beat him with; and while he is capable of world class performances from the wing, he has never shown the consistency required to be an elite wide man. His lack of influence on the team this season seems to be down to a lack of minutes in the position in which he influences games the most in. A closer look under the hood shows just how close he is to matching those performances of last season.
Manchester City will be hoping that in the coming season, Rodri will continue maturing into the defensive midfielder we all know he can be. And with high hopes of quality defensive recruitment this summer after winning their CAS appeal against UEFA, you wouldn’t bet against City - and Bernardo - reaching peaks higher than those of seasons gone by.
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