On a Sky Sports documentary charting the rise of Manchester City, former defender Nedum Onuoha told a story about David Silva, the Spanish midfielder who retired last week at the age of 37.
Onuoha described how Silva pulled him up during a game for not passing him the ball. Naturally, as most defenders would, Onuoha looked for a safer option, turning away from Silva because he was marked. But that was precisely why the playmaker wanted the ball, because he had a man behind him. He wanted to manipulate the ball and player together, using his skill, technique and low centre of gravity to dictate the play. Onuoha had just been exposed to an entirely different way of thinking.
It represented the fact that the club was operating on a completely different level to before; their takeover in 2008 by the Abu Dhabi United Group had promised untold success, but it was arguably his signing from Valencia that really set the wheels in motion.
Making assumptions about Silva might have been easy back in the summer of 2010. He was small, diminutive and not particularly strong to look at. Perhaps some opponents and fans may have thought he wouldn’t be able to handle the rigour of English football; so often it is assumed that lacking physical presence and experience of the typically fast-paced, aggressive style will mean it’ll prove too difficult to cope. Such beliefs are, amazingly, still held today, despite Silva and others pioneering a change in that style and, in many places, attitudes.
His arrival was right in the midst of Spain’s domination of world football. They’d just won the World Cup, on top of their European Championship success from two years earlier, and their possession-based approach, predicated on giving the emphasis to the smaller, creative midfielders in the team. Luis Aragonés, a hard-nosed coach who preferred to look towards physicality, was blown away by Silva, Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the build-up to Euro 2008 and ripped up his entire system to incorporate them. Even today, the tactical ripple effect from that team is still being felt.
Anybody with doubts over Silva’s ability to adapt need only look at what he’d been through make it to City. In his retirement announcement video, there were clips of his journey, and evident were so many dusty pitches, where holding his own was paramount. It was there that he honed his skills, perfecting his first touch and speed of thought. By the time he was in the Premier League, he was ready to conquer it; that is exactly what he did.
Curiously, though, he doesn’t seem to have been given the respect he deserves. Great artists are so often appreciated after their time, but outside of City, where there is more than a decent argument to say he is their greatest ever player, helping the club begin a dynasty in English football under Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and, perhaps most pertinently Pep Guardiola, recognition isn’t so strong.
When it comes to his national side, Silva never quite escaped the shadow of Xavi and Iniesta, whereas the best example of the ‘tall and strong’ bias that still exists now comes through selections of all time Premier League elevens. While Steven Gerrard, Patrick Vieira, Frank Lampard and Roy Keane, among the most common picks, are all worthy of their places, Silva is regularly overlooked in spite of everything he has achieved in English football, helping to set the role of a midfielder on an entirely different path.
Maybe Silva didn’t have that many ‘moments’, goals or assists in big games. But even if that were true (it isn’t, just look back at the day City beat Manchester United 6-1 at Old Trafford in the derby in 2011), the metric isn’t a fair one. To really appreciate Silva’s greatness, watch for the pass before the pass before the goal, or a turn on the halfway line. His magic was subtle, and uniquely special.
There is still a sense of what might have been for Silva. How would he be remembered had he played for a bigger team? Or won the Champions League?
The real question is, though, when will he get the love he deserves? Perhaps now, with time to reflect, that will come.