Man City legend David Silva
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Tactical Retrospective: Man City’s David ‘El Mago’ Silva

David Silva is one of those unique personas in football who is universally respected, even by rival fans. It’s a testament not merely to his genius on the pitch, but the manner in which he expressed it. The talisman of the “noisy neighbours” has quietly spent a decade cultivating an illustrious Premier League career.

Situating a retiring player in the context of football history is always difficult. It’s a task that is perhaps doomed for failure. How good was David Silva? Five league cups, two FA Cups, and four Premier League titles are no doubt an impressive trophy haul. 60 goals and 94 assists are laudable statistics. But neither captures the mercurial Spaniard’s true brilliance.

Silva represents the enduring icon of the new Manchester City, a club dominated by rapacious ambition and lingering corruption. In the midst of such turmoil, Silva’s presence provided constant tranquillity that propelled City to new heights. That serenity is captured not merely by his reticence off the pitch, but also by his supreme quality on it.

When he arrived in Manchester in 2010, Silva was most accustomed to playing as a classic number ten. In Valencia’s 4-2-3-1, the Spaniard flourished in the hole behind future Barcelona great David Villa. He was free to roam the pitch, picking up pockets of space in between the lines, and move dynamically in concert with Villa to disrupt opposition defences.

The Spaniard showed himself to be a master of finding and attacking space, which combined with his technical quality, made him a potent attacking weapon. In the free role afforded to him, Silva also dropped deep to assist build-up. Here, his acute awareness of the positioning of his teammates and the opposition defence shone, as Silva moved the ball quickly and precisely rather than dwelling on the ball as he sought a passing option. It’s an attribute that has been central to his success in England and especially under Pep Guardiola.

For Spain, Silva usually featured in a very different role on the right-wing in a 4-3-3. The positional switch was borne out of necessity to maintain the infamous Xavi, Iniesta, Busquests trio in midfield, but Silva performed reasonably well. He had the work rate to track back when required, and cutting infield onto his stronger left foot, he could change the angle of attack and play the deft through balls that have become the hallmark of his game.

The experience as a right-winger was also beneficial for his switch to Manchester City. For both Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, Silva thrived on the right-hand side. In addition to the above-mentioned skills, playing off the right gave Silva more space than in the congested centre. Not only did more space allow Silva to dictate play with greater ease, but he was also subject to less physical duels, which surely eased his transition to Premier League football and likely contributed to his longevity.

He also developed a knack for goal-scoring. Rather than relying on blistering pace and fancy trickery, Silva’s understanding of space and tactical intelligence meant that he could often arrive in goal-scoring positions undetected. Unlike many playmakers, his goals are less about outrageous efforts from 30 yards and more about being in the right place at the right time. Silva may not have been the quickest, but he more than made up for it with his speed of thought.

The ultimate test of that sublime footballing brain was when Guardiola arrived in Manchester. After playing several seasons primarily as a right-winger, the former Bayern and Barcelona coach moved Silva to an advanced central-midfield role in his 4-1-4-1 and 4-3-3. With the defensive cover of Fernandinho and the quarter-back like prowess of Kevin De Bruyne, Silva found himself in an advanced central role akin to the one he had at Valencia. He was tasked with linking attacking moves, playing neat one-twos with other forwards, and supplying creative passes to the likes of Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, and Riyad Mahrez.

With Guardiola at the helm, there was a greater emphasis on Silva’s positional fluidity, his movement both vertically and horizontally, and his pressing when out of possession. The 34-year-old adapted to his new environment superbly and installed himself as a key player in Guardiola’s two title-winning sides.

In that time, Silva has also become City’s captain. He’s far from a stereotypical leader. He’s no Carlos Puyol or Bryan Robson. Yet he brings a calming presence to the team by virtue of his quality and the way in which he demonstrates it. That Silva has thrived both as a player and a leader under the auspices of a control-freak such a Guardiola speaks volumes to his quality as a player.

Tactically flexible, technically superb, and subtly brilliant, David Silva is a one-of-a-kind player in football that will be sorely missed by Manchester City and by the Premier League.

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