Blues need Silva in top form
Last year, on the eve of the FA Cup final, David Silva put his finger on the biggest cultural difference between La Liga and the Premier League. The Manchester City playmaker told the Guardian, bluntly: “There isn’t a Spanish Stoke.”
Stoke, the tallest team in the Premier League (the squad tops out at Peter Crouch's 6-foot-7), didn’t daunt one of the league's smallest players. The 5-7 Silva, according to his former coach, Luis Aragonés, is one of the most gutsy players in the game.
There’s little obvious machismo to his style of play, but as Stoke were to find out, Silva proved a constant thorn in their side at Wembley, conjuring and squandering a number of chances before involving himself in the buildup to Yaya Touré’s winning goal. That goal ended City’s 35-year wait for a major trophy — and signaled that Silva is a force to be reckoned with.
Fast forward to last week and City’s trip to Stoke’s Britannia stadium. Mindful as all teams now are of Silva’s ability to seriously hurt opponents with his artistry rather than any uncharacteristic aggression, Stoke laid it on thicker. Contesting a header, Silva received an elbow to the side of the head from Dean Whitehead. A gash opened up and he required a head bandage to control the bleeding. It left Silva looking like an '80s tennis star. Silva stayed cool, as Bjorn Borg probably would have done, but between one master on grass and another, the City midfielder couldn’t find a way to win and was hauled off by his manager after 62 minutes.
A dip in Silva’s performance levels has been noticeable in recent weeks. Silva can be excused considering the exceptionally high standards he has set for himself throughout this season. He is a worthy candidate for Footballer of the Year and will certainly rival Arsenal striker Robin van Persie for votes.
But of late the conductor of City’s orchestra hasn’t been on song, so Samir Nasri has had to pick up the baton. Silva has made more assists than any other player in the Premier League this season — but he hasn’t set up a goal for one of his teammates in his past seven league games. Is it a coincidence that City have suddenly conceded top slot to Manchester United?
This title race is as relentless as that of the 2008-09 season. There’s absolutely no relief from the mental and physical pressure, and that can take a toll. It’s quite understandable that Silva is suffering from some fatigue.
But it would of course be wide of the mark to associate City’s stumbles exclusively to Silva’s slightly faltering form.
Silva’s slump must be seen in a wider context that takes into account, for example, how United have really hit their stride. Then there’s the inopportune timing of Vincent Kompany’s injury; the exhaustion of players like Sergio Agüero; and the difficulties that Mario Balotelli and Edin Dzeko have had in finding the net away from home since the beginning of the New Year. Those struggles up top have been so profound that City manager Roberto Mancini has swallowed his pride and reintegrated the outlawed Carlos Tevéz.
Aside from goalkeeper Joe Hart, no one has played more minutes for City this season than Silva. He is pushing through the pain barrier, too, coping with a left ankle problem. “This ankle,” Silva told The Daily Telegraph earlier this month, “it is something that I have had problems with for years and years. Every day, I have to look after it. It’s not 100 percent, but I just have to look after it. Playing all these games in England is hard, so it is impossible, totally impossible, to be completely 100 percent all the time.”
City are managing Silva with care. He has been substituted in each of their past four matches to protect his fitness, but there have, in some cases, also been tactical reasons for his withdrawals.
Typically, Silva starts either on the right- or left-hand side. He then comes into the centre of the pitch, as either of City’s fullbacks overlap to stretch the opposition defense out wide. This creates gaps in the middle that he can exploit with his passing. But, as Stoke showed Saturday, there’s success to be had in leaving City’s fullbacks to cross. They’re not wingers, and their delivery isn’t great.
Rather than leave their starting positions to go out and meet City’s fullbacks, Stoke were much happier to defend narrow and keep tight. All the holes Silva usually plays through were blocked. It was a good tactic because Stoke made City attack in a way that played to their strengths in defense.
Earlier this season, Mancini seemed to be lacking a deep-lying playmaker. He appeared to address that by signing David Pizarro in the January transfer window, though the midfielder, who is on loan from Roma, has been used less frequently than anticipated. Now, in light of what happened at Stoke, City apparently need a natural winger. Silva was replaced by Adam Johnson at the weekend, and Johnson might become more of a protagonist in the weeks to come for precisely that reason.
Yet it won’t be at Silva’s expense. Mancini might simply reconsider starting Nasri and Silva together on either flank. Their inclination to drift inside leaves City with little width. Saturday’s game against Sunderland, when City’s chances of staying perfect at home will be bolstered by the expected returns of Kompany and Joleon Lescott, will also be Mancini’s next opportunity to answer this question. Relatively speaking, it’s a nice one to be posed.
But come April 30, Mancini will want Silva to be back to his brilliant best. It was against United that he arguably gave his finest performance in a City shirt. A repeat of that display, should his side still be in the title race, might well put the Silva in silverware.