David Silva: A Quiet Genius at Odds with a World Where Paul Pogba Is King

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistMarch 31, 2017

As talented a player as there is in the Premier League, without the usual fanfare.
As talented a player as there is in the Premier League, without the usual fanfare.Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

When commenting on David Silva playing well, it can feel like looking up from the foot of the Empire State Building and noting its height. As an observation, it's up there with water being wet.

Maybe he should take it as a compliment. It's probably how he likes it. Sometimes an appreciative look between manager and player can mean as much as a brass-band procession. Praise, after all, is superfluous when overindulged.

A player being consistently good is not the sexiest topic to write about. It has no narrative arc. It's hardly a great pub debate either. Essentially, it's an anecdote without a punchline. As a result, in terms of column inches dedicated to talent, Manchester City's favourite adopted son must get the most disproportionate coverage of any player in the Premier League.

When my partner asked me who I was writing about this week and I replied David Silva, her response was a curious mix of incredulity and concern. "Why? What's happened to him?" she said, as though spotting an ageing celebrity trending on Twitter.

After offering reassurance it was an ode as opposed to an obituary being written, there was palpable vindication a player never in the news probably should be.

In an age when no footballing matter is minuscule enough not to merit forensic dissection, it seems remarkable that a player who scored his 30th goal for Spain over the international interlude, to become his country's fourth top goalscorer, is afforded so little fanfare.

It is now 111 caps and counting for Silva, spread over more than a decade in which Spain have proved to be one of the greatest international sides of all time. Silva is one of the Premier League's few World Cup winners, while he started in the final of both Euro 2008 and Euro 2012, both of which Spain won.

He's one of modern football's heavyweights, there's no dispute about that.

Yet there's also little doubt there will have been more written about Paul Pogba's barbershop visits this season, than Silva's seamless transition into a deeper role when asked to play as a "free eight" under Pep Guardiola. 

The only thing Silva tends to dab is his brow when he breaks out into a cold sweat on the rare occasion he misplaces a pass. Rene Descartes' famous "I think dab, therefore I am" memo must have gone straight to Silva's junk mail.

If all this reads as slightly pious sneering in the direction of Pogba, it shouldn't. The problem isn't his lifestyle, and certainly not a personality as all-inclusive and enveloping as his smile, but rather a slavish detailing of his off-field endeavours as exhaustive as those on it. The problem is ours, not his. When did the part involving the ball become so secondary?

As Manchester United's marketing team may concede (under gunpoint) behind closed doors, they didn't make Pogba the most expensive player in the world because he's the best player in the world.

If Pogba irks traditionalists who like their footballers to be seen and not heard, Silva is a perfect poster boy for a more monastic existence. With cheekbones almost as high as his standing in the game, he won't be shy of commercial opportunities. It would appear, though, he is Gremlin-like in his aversion to bright lights. He lends his name to virtually nothing and by and large eschews interviews. Silva's not quite Greta Garbo, but it's tricky to recall his voice.

He's unique in that he's a world-class footballer who appears content where he is. Contracted to City until 2019, he's gone seven seasons now without so much as a sideways glance towards Barcelona or Real Madrid.

Sunday's opponents Arsenal provide quite the contrast. Their two star men, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, have spent the second half of the season scouring Rightmove while trying to stoke potential suitors into Benny Hill-style chase scenes. Think Chelsea manager Antonio Conte dressed as a randy nun, and you're not far off.

If you asked a Manchester City fan if they would swap Silva for Ozil, they'd likely politely decline, just as soon as they had picked themselves up from rolling on the floor laughing. It tends to be a two-horse race between Silva and Colin Bell whenever discussion veers onto the topic of the club's greatest player. Bell was nicknamed Nijinsky after the racehorse because of his stamina. Silva's poise reminds more of the ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, from whom the thoroughbred took its name.

At Valencia, Silva was top of the assist charts for three successive years. Since moving to Manchester, he has been the architect of 62 Premier League goals. No player over the same period has been responsible for more. That's an average of 8.85 per season over seven campaigns, with 10 matches left to play in the current term.

Even with his famed encyclopedic knowledge of the game, Guardiola concedes his compatriot's tenacity has surprised him.

"I was impressed the most when I met him by the fact of how competitive he is," Guardiola told reporters (via Squawka). "The skills, you know them because he is a long time here in England, but how he is a winner, he has a winning mentality, he's a fighter, he runs, he's a fantastic player."

After finishing last season in somewhat of a lull having never recovered from an ankle complaint that has been a reoccurring issue over the course of his career, there were reservations over how integral Silva would be for City this term. Those have proved to be unfounded. 

It is no surprise Silva is the quintessential manager's player. Given there is about as much chance of him saying something out of turn as there is him giving the ball away, a long succession of former bosses talk of him in the most glowing of terms.

Roberto Mancini said of the man he brought to England in 2010, per the Guardian: "If he had gone to Barca two years ago, everyone would be saying he's one of the best players in the world—and he is one of the best players in the world. I think he's the same as Xavi and Andres Iniesta."

Even Manuel Pellegrini, a man so dry City's kit man used to hang washing off him, was sufficiently impressed to offer perhaps the only sound bite of his career that borders on gushing, as reported by the Manchester Evening News: "Not only for me, it is a gift to see him playing every Sunday (sic, or a lament over modern football's fixture scheduling?) for Manchester City."

The coach who first promoted Silva into Spain's senior squad, Luis Aragones, once famously said in that indomitable way of his that Silva had the "biggest cojones" of any member of his team.

In his last eight appearances for his country, Silva has scored six goals and made four assists. Such form led AS columnist Javier Matallanas to last week somewhat excitedly exclaim, "If only he scored more, comparisons would surely be drawn with Messi." Given Messi has scored 41 goals for Barcelona this season to Silva's six for Manchester City, it's about as fanciful as saying Brexit would be a good idea if it weren't for the leaving the EU bit.

Still, it highlights the only significant mark against Silva when talking of the Premier League's best ever players. Only once in seven seasons in England has he reached double figures in terms of league goals. It's remarkable that in 212 Premier League appearances for Manchester City he has only managed seven more goals than the 30 he has scored for Spain.

What makes Silva special is he plays without ego. He can do anything with a football but never feels the need to demonstrate the fact. A footballer in complete control of his talent is a beautiful thing to watch. When he drops a shoulder, gliding inside or out, it's one of the most edifying sights in English football.

Never hurried, he's the type of man who never has to break stride to make a bus mere mortals would miss despite running. Silva puts a spectator immediately at ease when in possession; he's a human beta-blocker.

With someone like Pogba, it's the exact opposite. On form, he can be as exhilarating a watch as pretty much anyone in world football, but at the same time, when he lines up a shot from 30 yards half of the Stretford End habitually don hard hats. His passing veers from the sublime to the ridiculous and stops off at all points in-between. He'd do well to heed the advice of the late American folk singer Woody Guthrie: "Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple." 

It's to Pogba's credit he takes responsibility, yet so often when he forces things when Manchester United are struggling to break sides down, particularly at home, he plays with all the composure of a kid on a first date who hasn't made a move by the time the credits are rolling. 

Silva's a natural when employed in a deeper position. It's not a dissimilar role to that which Andres Iniesta is usually given, or even Santi Cazorla. City try to get the ball to him and Kevin De Bruyne at the earliest opportunity, with the pair charged with knitting everything together. The great Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, himself a keen amateur goalkeeper, once opined: "Genius is finding the invisible link between things." Few do it better than Silva. Guardiola's not bad at it either. 

At 31, moving backwards could add at least a couple more years to his career at the highest level. Though as the player testifies, it's a loose leash Guardiola keeps him on, according to the club's official website: "It is true that I am playing some steps further back sometimes because I have to help in the build-up—but Guardiola also gives me freedom to attack and be close to the rival goal and create chances, which is something that I really like. He gives me a lot of freedom, and I am very happy playing in this role."

Silva makes space as well as any player in the Premier League, while his capacity to take the ball in tight spots is similarly largely unrivalled. Throw him into the middle of a rugby scrum, and he'd emerge with the ball without a hair out of place or a stain on his smoking jacket.

Looking back at archived articles from 2010 when Silva joined Manchester City in a £26 million deal from Valencia, it's amusing to note how English football's tolerance of flakey foreigners was being tested to its limits as early as September in his debut campaign. He'd barely been at the club a month when he felt compelled to reason with those already sceptical over whether his slight 5'7" frame could cope with the physicality of the Premier League (via The Telegraph): "I have said all along that I just need time. Remember, I only came to the club at the start of last month after the World Cup. I then had to go to Mexico and Argentina and that made it hard for me to settle in at City. But slowly and bit by bit, as time goes by, I feel more and more at home. I will be better."

Seven years on, he's vying with Coronation Street's resident hairdressing Platt to be the most Mancunian David in the city. Guardiola just this month said Silva was one of the reasons why he agreed to join City, despite those "in the know" not so long ago speculating he could be deemed surplus to requirements. 

In terms of the club's success in the Sheikh Mansour years, Silva, along with Yaya Toure, should be viewed as a catalyst who made an impact not dissimilar to Eric Cantona across the city at Old Trafford. City won the FA Cup in his debut campaign, a first major trophy in 35 years. The following season was even better as a 44-year wait to win the league was resigned to history. 

Other signings may have made more of a statement, but Silva has proved to be the best.

Just don't expect him to talk about it, or anyone else for that matter.

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