In midfield or as an oddball centre-forward, Manchester Citys key man was brilliant in a win that could be decisive for his teams title aspirations
With half an hour to go in this taut, thrilling, at times spiky Manchester derby, David Silva could be seen chugging around at the point of the Manchester City assault , not so much pressing the red-shirted defenders as growling between them with a stately various kinds of grandeur, like a royal frigate in shallow waters.
With Gabriel Jesus off and City leading 2-1 it was Silva, the most false of false No9s, who found himself shunted into that forward role. He has cut a more rotund, slightly more ponderous figure in the last year and a half, but remains a beautifully pure footballer. Here Silva is not merely the slowest, least athletic, least physically imposing footballer on either squad- he was also the best player on the pitch, so unhurried, so well informed the shifting aircrafts and currents around him that at times he resembled a colts coach mixing in with the under-1 2s in training, be permitted to peer above the heads, direct the play, call the next pass two steps ahead.
In a match that considered Manchester United’s own PS90m centre forward Romelu Lukaku fight- all ham-footed lay-offs and an inadvertent assistance for both of City’s goals- Silva was a striking phase of contrast. An oddball centre-forward perhaps, but also the vie oddball centre-forward. At one point in that second half Silva surged down the left channel, held the ball for Leroy Sane’s run and played a beautiful nudged reverse pass, a pass so gentle it seemed to belong in an altogether different game, to be startled to find itself out here surrounded by all this frenzy. Moments afterward Silva even took it on himself to make a curving, decoy run, Ian Rush-style, freeing space for Kevin De Bruyne behind him to surge forward and shoot at goal.
If this victory does end up a decisive step towards the league title it was entirely fitting Silva should decorate its best moments. More than any other player, and even as an inherited portion, Silva personifies Pep Guardiola’s obsession with pass and move, with making a fetish of the ball, of trying to win every moment in the match.
And yet Silva would perhaps struggle to find a role in the opposition here, a Manchester United team packed with speed and athleticism, but sent out at the start to defend deep and then break with speed.
And what a start it was from United, who spent the opening half hour defiantly silencing their own mob. This wasn’t just assault versus defense during those wasted opening 43 minutes, it was deep, maniacal, utterly paranoid defence. For long periods Old Trafford seemed to be staging a pub game on a windy day, the ball skirling inexorably towards the United goal, every clearance boomeranging back in the sleet.
Even United’s method of moving the ball forward from the back was extraordinary, something from the Wimbledon playbook under Egil Olsen, “clearing out” the midfield and sending swirling long passes towards the front three, 42 of them in the opening hour. The contrast was, of course, striking. With 20 minutes gone, Vincent Kompany varied the angle for City, skimming a long pass that flew straight-out through to David De Gea, while in his rectangle Guardiola ran berserk, puffing out the wings of his shiny black bomber jacket as he signalled for more patience, more care, more of the same old Pep style.
United were, of course, faced with a ticklish balance of assaulting intentions, teased by some obvious imperfections in City’s defence, tortured by the prospect of being torn apart by the rapiers at the other aim should they overcommit to seeking out those tender spots. But this was something else, as demonstrated by the fact United scored from their first concerted assault in first-half trauma time, Marcus Rashford finishing expertly after Fabian Delph had failed to cut out a diagonal pass.
By that stage United were already chasing the game. Later Nicolas Otamendi’s neat finish would take it away again. Fittingly, it was Silva who had scored the opener, albeit in the most unexpected route, scissoring home a loose ball after a corner. Up to that phase Silva had been majestic in his more accustomed role, maintaining the ball, directing City’s assaults, introducing importance where required, and skipping away from Ander Herrera, with a decisive slow-motion grace. Some players have an extra yard in their head. Silva appears to have an entire practice pitching up there, with the whole game playing on fast-forward on a series of big screens.
At one point, as his legs began to slow towards the end, he could be seen calling out to Raheem Sterling and pointing, telling him where to run to take De Bruyne’s pass, trundling around the pitching like an auxiliary brain in a jar, stimulating every part of the play he touched just that bit better; the most fitting of key portions on a day that assured City take a giant leap forward.
Make sure to visit: CapGeneration.com