As the Seleção prepare to take on Sweden in the final of the U21 European Championship in Prague tonight, Will Stratmann takes a closer look at the name on everybody’s lips, Bernardo Silva.
This article was first published on the excellent Licence to Roam website, coincidentally a title that perfectly fits the mandate given by coach Rui Jorge to Portugal’s star man.
As their train departed for Prague, Bernardo Silva and his Portugal U21 teammates must’ve been looking forward to the match that would follow. After demolishing an experienced German side in the semi-finals, by a scoreline of five goals to nil, they now go on to contest the U21 European Championship final, against their Swedish counterparts.
For Silva, the tournament has been a memorable one. He has recorded the most man of the match performances, tying teammate William Carvalho with two, while on the dribbling front, his whopping average of seven per game in the group stages placed him well ahead of the next best, Germany’s Amin Younes, who averaged a comparatively subdued 3.7.
Both of those statistics speak to his influence at the tournament, but for Silva, all of that is secondary. “I’m aware that there has been quite a lot of praise for my displays but my only focus here is to help Portugal achieve their goals in the competition,” he said. “We’re doing well and as long as that’s the case, then I’m happy.”
It’s an unselfish perspective from a player whose dribbling statistics suggest the opposite is true, but when it comes down to it, Silva’s ability to breeze by an opponent, at a moment’s notice, is something that can greatly benefit his side. Earlier this year, for example, the 20-year-old completed a 1-2 while playing for Monaco, in Ligue 1, against Caen. He followed that with a nutmeg, from the right-hand side, which then allowed him to venture inside the area. Next came a rasping drive, again through the legs of a defender, to put his team 2-0 up.
Silva later added another for the principality club, this time a deft chip over the oncoming goalkeeper, to put the result beyond doubt. And it’s this unique blend of attributes, most of which are technical in nature, that enable him to act as a major weapon in attack. He shifts the ball with such speed and precision that even Ricardinho, the world’s best futsal player in 2014, felt the need to praise him. “He is one of the very few players that I actually think could be a major hit in futsal,” he told UEFA.com. “When the ball lands on that left foot it seems like it is glued to it. He has an amazing technique and he can become one of the best players in the world.”
To the uninitiated, that might sound a little extreme. After all, it was only a season ago that Silva had made just two senior appearances for Benfica, before being loaned out to his now permanent employer in Monaco. But to those who have closely monitored his development, especially in 2015, the youngster is showing signs of rapid improvement. It’s for that reason Monaco parted with nearly €16 million in order to secure his services, and for that reason he ended the season with an impressive tally of nine goals and three assists in the league, most of which came towards the end of the campaign. Portuguese legend Deco was quick to point this out, contending that, “Bernardo is developing quite rapidly and I really think he profited a lot by moving to Monaco.”
Deco also commented on his approach to the game. “He’s tremendous on the ball and has a lot of confidence for someone so young,” he said. “What I like more about him is that he’s not afraid of taking risks and making mistakes. He had a terrific season and now we’re seeing all that at the Under-21s.”
It’s hard to disagree with Deco, especially after Portugal’s 5-0 thrashing of Germany in the tournament semi-finals. The diminutive Silva was again outstanding on this occasion, scoring the opener in a manner befitting the praise lavished upon him by his compatriot. Here he received a pass from Carvalho, in a left-of-centre position. Without even needing a touch, he then played a quick flick around German right-back Julian Korb, finding the feet of Ivan Cavaleiro in the process. As Cavaleiro brought the ball forward, Silva spun in behind Korb to offer an outlet for the Benfica man. Soon after Silva was through on goal, allowing the ball to run across his body before slamming it home at the near post.
Yet again, his technique stood out with a neat flick and a near-post finish, but his movement shouldn’t go unnoticed either. Operating as Portugal’s number 10, he continually drifted laterally across the front line, aiming to avoid a congested centre as he did so. He received not only Carvalho’s pass as a consequence of this, but also drew Korb towards the ball and thus out of position. The young Borussia Mönchengladbach defender was unable to recover from there, and Silva, having manipulated the space in midfield to a T, ran in behind him to finish emphatically.
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In that sense, the goal was as much about the movement as it was the technique, all with a bit of acceleration thrown in for good measure. They’re gifts that have the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City tracking his progress at the U21 Euros, and while those sides would undoubtedly have to spend big to prize him away from Monaco, Silva tries to avoid the more serious side of the game.
“Personally I always try to have fun whenever I’m on the pitch. To play football is, without a shadow of a doubt, the one thing that I love doing most,” he added in the Uefa.com interview. “I’ve been used to playing the way I do since I was a little child and I won’t change my style no matter if I’m playing in a tournament like this one or just training. Of course I try to be as focused as possible but, at the same time, I play with passion and always try to have a good time out there.”
It’s an attitude reflected in his cheerful style of play, but that doesn’t make him any easier to stop. His close control, low centre of gravity and vast array of body feints are reminiscent of Lionel Messi, at least in terms of approach, and for Sweden, Portugal’s opponents in the final, mitigating Silva’s impact might just be the key to success.
The highly-rated attacker will be aiming for another strong performance, however, largely in order to aid his nation’s ambition to take home their first ever U21 European Championship title. Portugal’s only other appearance in the final came 21 years ago, in 1994, when they went down to Italy. That side featured Luís Figo and Rui Costa, two men rightly regarded as legends of the Portuguese game, and now, in 2015, Silva and his teammates have the chance to go one better.
It would be a wonderful end to an already excellent tournament for the Portuguese, and in Silva, who knows, they may even have a player capable of sitting alongside the likes of Figo and Rui Costa one day as well.
By Will Stratmann