How Bernardo Silva emerged from the darkness to become player of the year contender

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How Bernardo Silva emerged from the darkness to become player of the year contender - GETTY IMAGES
How Bernardo Silva emerged from the darkness to become player of the year contender - GETTY IMAGES

The days when Pep Guardiola suspected the awards system in English football was geared towards Liverpool were probably assuaged a couple of years ago when, despite the Merseyside club dominating the division to end their 30-year wait for the title, Kevin De Bruyne was named PFA Player of the Year.

But if Manchester City end up maintaining the incredible pace they have set this season to deliver a fourth Premier League title in five seasons and the individual accolades go the way of Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, it would probably not be a surprise to again hear Guardiola hinting at a certain injustice.

Just as he believed De Bruyne was robbed when losing out to Salah in 2017/18 after the Belgium midfielder inspired City to their first title under him and an unprecedented century of points, so Guardiola felt Bernardo Silva was the best player in England the following year when Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk won the PFA award.

Three seasons on, with Bernardo scaling the heights once more, Guardiola is again of the view that his Portugal playmaker has been the best player in the Premier League, however persuasive the case for Liverpool’s relentless goal machine, Salah.

City moved 13 points clear of Chelsea thanks to Saturday’s 1-0 win over Thomas Tuchel’s side at the Etihad Stadium and, while Guardiola’s beautifully oiled system is king at the Premier League champions, there are few more artful exponents of it than the hard and smart running Bernardo. And to think, had Barcelona been able to raise the cash in the summer, he would probably no longer be here.

It would not have been City’s choice, nor the wish of Guardiola, who would probably list Bernardo as one of his best three signings as City manager. But with the borders closed for much of the 18 months after the coronavirus pandemic hit, Bernardo wanted to move to Spain to be closer to his family, who are based in Lisbon and whom he had been largely denied access to. Even late in the summer, a transfer remained on the cards. Many City fans were wondering if it was goodbye when the player, turning to clap all four corners of the Etihad and dabbing his eyes, was substituted to a standing ovation during the 5-0 thrashing of Arsenal a few days before the window closed in August.

Bernardo has and retains a special place in the affections of City supporters and, while there are some at the club who felt they were getting an upgrade in Jack Grealish this summer, the Premier League’s first £100 million footballer has been left firmly in the shade by one of Europe’s most complete players.

Grealish’s time will doubtless come - Bernardo can speak from experience about a difficult first season transition under Guardiola - but it is not just the quality of the Portuguese’s performances that have resonated but the volume and dimensions of them. No one offers industry and invention quite like it.

Over the past 12 months, during which time perhaps only Joao Cancelo, Ruben Dias and Rodri could challenge Bernardo as City’s best outfield player, he has played no fewer than six positions. In the main, his best work has come as one of two central midfielders in a No. 8 role alongside Ilkay Gundogan or - as was the case against Chelsea at the weekend -De Bruyne, where he is given the freedom to exploit space through the middle by virtue of Guardiola asking his wingers to stay high and wide. Gundogan took advantage of such a set-up to finish as City’s top scorer with 17 goals last season and Bernardo - currently the club’s joint top scorer in the league with seven goals - is doing something similar this time around, even if it was De Bruyne in this instance who stole the headlines with his match-winning goal. Tuchel bemoaned Chelsea’s wasteful on the transition against City when the precision in possession frequently displayed by Bernardo was the order of the day.

Bernardo’s adaptability is extraordinary. Saturday, for example, saw him operating in an entirely different role than he had against Chelsea in September, when he excelled as a holding midfielder. Chelsea had limited Bernardo to just 27 touches in 64 minutes during their Champions League final victory in May but they had no answer to him at Stamford Bridge four months later, when he was everywhere, registering 92 touches and even spotted making headed clearances in his own penalty area. Chelsea failed to register a shot on target that day for the first time at home in 18 years. And they only mustered one on Saturday.

The following month at Anfield, Bernardo worked his magic mainly on the left, even if his most memorable moment came from an inside right position when he dribbled past five Liverpool players en route to teeing up Phil Foden for a chance he should have taken. In the 3-0 demolition of Everton in November, when he scored, Bernardo wreaked havoc from the right. At Old Trafford earlier that month, he terrorised Manchester United as a false nine and claimed City’s second goal. He did the same to Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League when he comfortably upstaged Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. Last month, at Aston Villa, he floated both left and right as City’s sole attacker and crashed home a jaw-dropping volley that will be a goal of the season contender.

Crucially for City again, he is happy. He shares an apartment in Manchester city centre with his Portuguese girlfriend, Ines Tomasz, and their French bulldog, which he named “John” after team-mate John Stones, and the couple have enjoyed brief getaways to London and Scotland. His family have been over fairly regularly from Lisbon and he is embracing city life again.

Arguably no one is more popular in the City dressing room, although few hate losing as much either. Watch the footage of City’s players giving Liverpool a guard of honour from 2020 and Bernardo is the only one not clapping. The only time he raises a hand is to take a sip from a plastic cup. He is not in it to be second best.

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