MANCHESTER, England (AP) — David Silva’s place in the pantheon of great Manchester City players is secure. For many, “Merlin” — as he is nicknamed by his teammates because of midfield wizardry — might be right at the top.
Yet there have been signs this season that, at age 33 and after nine years at Etihad Stadium, his powers are on the wane.
Fortunately for a club that is on track to retain the English Premier League title, there are two players seemingly ready to slot into Silva’s long-held position as the creative heartbeat of City’s team. Both have their best years ahead of them, too.
Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden have made giant strides in their own ways this season, to such an extent that the thought of David Silva being phased out of the City team isn’t accompanied with so much trepidation anymore.
City manager Pep Guardiola was so impressed with Bernardo in preseason that he knew then that the 24-year-old Portugal playmaker would be one of the untouchable members of his team. That has proved to be the case, with Bernardo impressing so much that he was selected in the Premier League team of the year announced on Thursday, and also is on the six-man shortlist for the player of the season.
“All the season was a masterclass, a masterpiece every single game,” Guardiola said after City’s 2-0 win over Manchester United on Wednesday, during which Bernardo scored the opening goal. “He is a joy.”
Versatile, hard-working and tenacious, Bernardo — in his second season at City following a move from Monaco for 43 million pounds ($55 million) — has been keeping Leroy Sane and record signing Riyad Mahrez out of the team in his position on the right wing. He is destined for a more central role in the long term.
Then there’s Foden, the captain of the England World Cup-winning under-17 side last year and the first player from City’s highly trumpeted new academy to make the breakthrough into the first team. Left-footed and nimble like the two Silvas, he has excited Guardiola since the first days of the Spaniard’s tenure at City in 2016.
“When I first landed here Txiki (Begiristain, City’s sporting director) told me, ‘Meet one player — he is 15, 16 years old. You have to know him,'” Guardiola said.
“And I did. After one day, two days, he came to our training session and wow. I said, ‘You are right, Txiki, this player is good.'”
Resisting demands to quickly throw him into the first team, Guardiola has carefully integrated locally born Foden into the senior side, firstly in the domestic cup competitions and in recent weeks in the Premier League. Foden might have scored one of City’s most crucial goals of the season , the early winner in the 1-0 victory over Tottenham last weekend, and he has netted six goals in 10 games.
Even though he didn’t come off the bench in the win over United, the 18-year-old Foden was still the subject of praise by Guardiola afterward.
“Phil Foden can play at full back and he’d play good,” the coach said. “Good players understand the game. He could play everywhere, in all the positions.”
David Silva still has plenty to offer City, though, on and off the field. He has not scored in 2019 and his influence in games has not been what it once was, but he is still a first-choice pick under Guardiola and remains crucial to the way City play.
Ideally, Guardiola would have managed David Silva’s game time better this season but injuries to fellow midfielder Kevin De Bruyne meant the former Spain international was called into service more often than planned, making 46 appearances in total so far.
He grew into the derby game at Old Trafford on Wednesday and dictated play in a dominant second half from City, even though he was perhaps fortunate to escape a booking — or even a red card — for planting his foot into the chest of United midfielder Andreas Pereira as he leapt to challenge for a header.
Foden recently spoke about the privilege of working alongside Silva — a player he describes as his “idol” — in training every day and absorbing his advice.
With the 27-year-old De Bruyne also bestriding Guardiola’s midfield, when fit, City will not be short of quality playmakers in the coming years.
Life after Silva, once such a dreaded prospect for everyone at City, might not be so harrowing after all.
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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80