David Silva: How do Man City replace their creative star?1 September 2020
David Silva arrived for his first day at Manchester City in 2010 with a sore head and champagne on his breath following some heavy post-World Cup celebrations. But his departure this summer, after 10 years of stellar service, leaves City with the hangover.
Over the past decade, the Spaniard has provided the club with unparalleled composure and creativity from midfield - qualities that helped them end a 34-year trophy drought and amass 11 pieces of major silverware.
They now face a future without him and a present that poses a major dilemma - how do you replace the irreplaceable?
'Superstar', 'special', 'genius'
Former England captain Alan Shearer told BBC Sport that Silva deserves to be remembered as "one of the best foreign players in Premier League history, up there with Thierry Henry, Eric Cantona and Sergio Aguero".
"You could even argue he is better than all of them," added the Premier League's all-time record goalscorer.
City boss Pep Guardiola - no stranger to managing world-class footballers - calls Silva "one of the best players I've ever seen".
Along with Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero, he helped form the nucleus of what has been an unprecedented period of success for City.
His stunning stats over the past 10 years back this up.
Over the past decade, he has created more chances than any other Premier League player. Way more.
Granted, he has played more games than most of his peers, but the total of 793 goalscoring opportunities he has fashioned is almost 200 higher than the next best player, former Chelsea attacker Eden Hazard (595). His tally of 93 assists is nearly 30 ahead of his nearest rival, City team-mate Kevin de Bruyne (66).
When City signed Silva from Valencia he was, by narrow definition, a winger. While he did operate in wide areas under Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini, it was drifting inside to the number 10 role that saw him at his most effective.
Within Guardiola's favoured 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 formation, he has played centrally, predominantly as the left-sided part of two "free eights" - a role that required he "help in build-up play more often and sacrifice a bit more in defence" but predominantly look to impact the game in the final third.
This is partially borne out by looking at the heatmaps from his final 10 league starts in a City shirt (see below).
But time waits for no man, regardless of talent, and the reality is that in 2019-20, Silva started the joint-fewest league games in a single campaign during his City career - 22, the same as in his injury-hit 2015-16.
The chances he created in 2019-20 represent just 8.4% of the club's league total for the season - his lowest contribution during his time in England.
He has moved on, and so must City.
Step forward the 'Stockport Iniesta'?
Despite their recent conflict with Uefa over financial fair play, City have deeper pockets than most should they wish to recruit a fitting successor to Silva.
But this idea was nipped in the bud by Guardiola, who revealed in June: "When David said it was his last year, I told the board we have Phil Foden, so we don't have to invest."
Part of the rationale behind this is that City need to invest elsewhere - they have already bought centre-back Nathan Ake for £41m, plus winger Ferran Torres from Valencia, and will eventually require a successor to increasingly injury-prone forward Aguero.
And then there is the little matter of their reported move for Lionel Messi, after the six-time Ballon d'Or winner indicated he wanted to leave Barcelona. Should that come off, City probably won't need to worry about where the goals and assists are coming from.
It may also be a response to their approach when replacing the influential Kompany, which placed a somewhat unrealistic expectation on Aymeric Laporte staying fit, filling the void and providing a similarly authoritative presence.
Mainly though, it represents faith in the qualities of the 20-year-old youth-team product from Stockport.
Despite flashes of brilliance and a Golden Ball for his performances in England's Under-17s World Cup win in 2017, Foden has had to bide his time for regular first-team football at City.
He had plenty post-restart in 2019-20 and shone, scoring five times and providing an assist in nine appearances to strengthen his case for more minutes next season.
However, Foden is not a like-for-like replacement for Silva. At least not yet.
"Foden has got all the tools to be whatever he wants to be but it is still going to be difficult for him to replicate what Silva does," former City defender Micah Richards told BBC Sport.
"Foden is the sort of person who will change games with flashes of brilliance, whereas Silva will run the game for you, dictate the tempo.
"So Foden might do something different, something that stands out more, by taking on three players and putting it into the top corner, which Silva doesn't really do. But Silva controls the game, playing passes from deeper areas as the person before the player who makes the assist."
Some key stats from 2019-20 also help illustrate the more attacking skillset that Guardiola has attempted to tap into with Foden.
Guardiola's assertion that "we have Phil Foden" is not necessarily a suggestion he will directly replace Silva in his XI, but more a commitment to continuing his development.
Foden may well feature in Silva's vacated "free eight" role next season, but it is more likely this is a longer-term plan and in the meantime he will rack up further minutes in his attacking wide left position, with the freedom to move in field and provide creativity from there.
In the meantime, the more experienced and disciplined Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva are more natural fits to take on a central role alongside De Bruyne - the true heir to David Silva's creative throne and the one his team-mates can look to for that defence-splitting ball.
Remember too that City have been here before and thrived, with De Bruyne injured for 18 league games of the 2018-19 season - one in which they won the Premier League with 98 points.
Evolution, not revolution
"What might help is that Silva hasn't played for them every week," former England midfielder Danny Murphy told BBC Sport. "They change things around in midfield all the time so it is not as if they don't know what life without him will be like.
"Top teams evolve over time. You have to just adapt a little bit."
During this season's Christmas period, David Silva started just one of six games, with his inside left role going to either Bernardo Silva or Gundogan in the other five.
But Bernardo and Gundogan differ in what they offer on the pitch, with the former more creative, and in theory capable of providing that Silva-esque killer ball to unlock a defence, while the latter is more defence-minded and disciplined.
It could be that Guardiola feels confident enough to play Bernardo as a free eight alongside De Bruyne for games in which his side are overwhelming favourites and expect to see the vast majority of the ball, with Gundogan deployed to provide protection on the left behind a free-roaming Foden or in a more conservative 4-2-3-1 against stronger opponents.
City have lost one of the best midfielders the Premier League has seen in Silva, Guardiola's challenge now is to make them a better side without him.
Additional reporting by Chris Bevan.