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Silva lining for City as Pep finds way forward with creative triumvirate

When Manchester City signed Jack Grealish there was a widespread assumption that his new start signalled the end of someone else’s time at the Etihad. Bernardo Silva was reckoned to be surplus to requirements. How could he fit in with Grealish and, when he was back to full fitness, the returning Phil Foden?

is chances of starting for City this season appeared to be limited to Carabao Cup games and dead-rubber Champions League ties. Indeed, there was word from his camp that he wanted out. He would surely be gone by January.

You would never have known there was an issue on Saturday at Brighton. Bernardo started in the same City side as Grealish and Foden, and, like his two English colleagues, was magnificent, seemingly relishing the opportunity to play with them.

Within half an hour there was startling evidence of why his manager, Pep Guardiola, did not remotely consider his Portuguese midfielder was now redundant. It came when Brighton mounted an attack, getting players forward in numbers into the City area. But Ruben Dias intercepted and passed forward to Bernardo, who was lurking midway in the City half.

He turned, looked up and immediately fired a perfect pass behind the Brighton centre-backs. Grealish ran on to it, sent a cross into the area with the outside of his right foot and Foden, sliding in ahead of Dan Burn, applied the finish.

It was the kind of goal that illuminates Guardiola’s sleeping hours. This is what he dreams of: speed of limb and thought distilled into the perfect counter-attack. Sure, many managers might consider it an indulgence to play three such players together in the same side.

But Guardiola built a Barcelona dynasty around Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi. And while it might be fanciful to suggest Bernardo, Foden and Grealish are yet quite in that category, there were times on Saturday when a side even as organised and well coached as Brighton did not know how to contain them. They were rampant.

It works roughly like this: Grealish tends to stay out left, ready for the ball out of defence that always seems to seek him out. Foden, although favouring his left foot, ghosts everywhere. And Bernardo, positioned slightly behind the two of them, constantly looks for ways to send them forward.

Well, that is how it appears to work. Actually, at any one time, any of them could be anywhere on the pitch. As Guardiola said of Foden in a lengthy eulogy to his young star after the match: “There are players who play positions and players who play football. Phil is one of these players.”

What might have signalled an end to the triumvirate was if Harry Kane had been signed in the summer.

Foden played roughly – very roughly – where Kane might have been had he not been obliged to stay at Tottenham. Not that there was anything false about the contribution of this ‘false nine’. Foden scored twice and supplied an assist for Riyad Mahrez’s goal in the last minute.

And for those City fans restaging their old Poznan celebration as yet another goal went in, it was hard to imagine Kane would have offered anything better than what they were witnessing on the south coast.

City hardly looked a goal-shy operation without a main striker. And that was largely down to the space and time found by their creative triumvirate. Frankly, Geoffrey Boycott’s old mum and her stick of rhubarb could have played alongside those three and probably ended up on the scoresheet.

What is appealing about this Brighton side is not just that they refused to be cowed by City’s first-half goal rush, but also the manner in which they attempted to come back. They have exciting creative prospects, too. When Tariq Lamptey, who has been largely absent since December, came on early in the second half, they had on the pitch a real taste of what the future holds under Graham Potter.

In Lamptey on the right and Marc Cucurella on the left, he boasts as progressive a pair of full-backs as any in the Premier League. And the two of them really brought Brighton back into the game. So much so that Guardiola realised he might need to rein in his creative trio and bring some steel into his midfield.

Tellingly, however, when he sought to disrupt Brighton’s pattern by bringing on his veteran destroyer Fernandinho, it was Grealish who gave way. Bernardo was going nowhere. (© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2021)

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]

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