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"Losing was a tough blow, but we’re going to fight again"

From Manchester City’s ‘other Silva’ to a vital cog in Pep Guardiola’s trophy-hunting machine, Bernardo Silva is flourishing under a coach with his same insatiable desire to win

WORDS Simon Hart | INTERVIEW Caroline de Moraes | PORTRAITS Julian Finney

Interview
Bernardo Silva is sitting at the edge of the indoor pitch at Manchester City’s training ground talking about John. The John in question, though, is not John Stones, his City team-mate. Rather, it is Bernardo’s pet dog. “John?” “John!” he affirms. The reason that this canine John has entered the conversation with Champions Journal is down to a detour we have taken into his life off the field. “My dog is a French Bulldog because we thought it was the best breed to have in an apartment,” he explains. “He sleeps a lot – he spends the whole day sleeping – so it’s easier. He doesn’t need to burn off a lot of energy.”

In one sense, at least, the dog has something in common with his master. At home, away from the professional demands of being a footballer with the champions of England, Bernardo likes to save on energy too. “Every time I leave a training session or a game and go home, I try to forget football,” he admits. “I try to not watch many games at home. I spend time with my family and my friends; with my girlfriend and my dog.”

Rather than watch football, he likes to cook – “I’m a good cook but I only make simple, easy and healthy dishes,” he says – and during the first Covid-19 lockdown, he took up a fresh hobby in learning the piano, though he has let that slip of late. “I don’t know why but I stopped and I need to start playing again because I’ve forgotten almost all of it!

“Before Covid-19 I’d try to travel,” he goes on. “If I had a day or two off, I’d go to London or hop on a plane and go to someplace close, like Paris or somewhere similar. Now, unfortunately, I can’t do that because we can’t travel, but I try to distract myself and take advantage of everything outside of football.”

If this all suggests an openness, a curiosity about life, the perception would not be misplaced. City insiders say the very same about the Bernardo they see here each day: a bright and chatty 27-year-old with a gift for languages and a love of a joke, who cuts across the different groups that naturally form in a large multinational squad of footballers.

It is not the sole reason why he is one of the most respected players at City. There is his contribution on the field too, where he is similarly intelligent and versatile. This is a player who spent much of his first three years in Manchester playing as an inverted winger, a left-footed forward stepping in from the right.

At times last season, he took on the role of a false nine during the prolonged absences of the now departed Sergio Agüero. This year, with record-signing Jack Grealish added to City’s wide attacking options, Bernardo has stepped back into midfield, operating in a No8 position from which he moves forward with Kevin De Bruyne to form an attacking quintet whenever City advance. A notable exception was the September league win at Chelsea, when he played as a holding midfielder alongside Rodri – albeit still finding the energy to make penetrating runs upfield.

“When I go home, I try to forget about Football. I try to distract myself and take advantage of everything outside the Game” 


“Obviously, every player has different characteristics and I play better in some positions than others,” he says of his flexibility at City. “On the one hand, it’s good to be able to play in many positions. On the other hand, it’s very difficult because you lose your [usual] routines. When you have the routine of playing in the same position every week, it gets easier and you end up performing better. But, of course, I believe that a player who understands the different phases of the game can play in various positions – in any position.” And does he have a favourite? He offers a diplomatic response. “I prefer not to say it but I do, of course.”

Some argue that his current midfield role is his best because he seldom gives the ball away – a trait he shares with City’s original Silva, David, now immortalised in the form of a statue outside the club’s ground. If Phil Foden was once considered the Spanish Silva’s heir apparent, the young Englishman is now blossoming higher up the pitch, leaving Bernardo to stitch passing patterns further back.

For the record, Bernardo feels David Silva was “underappreciated” – even with that statue – because “nowadays people, unfortunately, look a lot at goals and assists instead of looking at the game”. As for Bernardo himself, whose future at City had a question mark beside it not so long ago (amid suggestions he was seeking a return to southern Europe), he is more appreciated now than ever.

Turning back the clock to where it all began for Bernardo and the Sky Blues, David Silva was on the opposing side when he first played at the City of Manchester Stadium almost five years ago. Then, Bernardo was in the red and white of Monaco for a storming Champions League round of 16 first-leg tie in February 2017. “A bit of a crazy game” is how he describes a contest in which Monaco led 2-1 and 3-2 before eventually succumbing 5-3. “It was a match that created a desire in me to play in the Premier League, to play in England and, at the end of the season, City asked me if I wanted to come here. I think it was an easy answer because in that match I got a taste of the atmosphere, the way football is experienced in England.”

Bernardo was part of a Monaco side that won Ligue 1 that spring, a side featuring talents such as Fabinho (“a warrior”), Radamel Falcao and an 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé, who struck in both legs. If that was English football’s first encounter with the now Paris Saint-Germain marksman, Bernardo was already well acquainted with his powers.
"Football goes on. When you win, the following year you’re there to win again"

“When he arrived in the first team for the first training session he was 16 years old. And I remember, after the first or second session he had with us, going to João Moutinho and both of us were like, ‘Wow, who is that kid?’ He was really special because you could see from the beginning that he was different, he wasn’t afraid of coming at us, coming at the older guys, and dribbling past two or three players. Usually when you’re 16 you’re a little bit afraid of the big guys, but he’d go at the defenders and just ‘kill’ them. Then, after two years, he started playing more often with us, and now he’s one of the best in the world.”

As for Bernardo, author of the pass for Mbappé to open the scoring in Monaco’s 3-1 second-leg success, he left his own calling card in that away-goals triumph. Pep Guardiola, his future coach, certainly took note. “I think those two matches may have changed the course of my career because, at the end of the first game, I crossed paths with Pep in the mixed zone. I was giving a TV interview and so was he. He came up to me, saying, ‘Congratulations on the match,’ and we spoke a little bit about it. He also congratulated us for our performances in the French league and so, in a way, it was maybe the beginning of my decision to come to Manchester later.”

And just how was the challenge of adapting to Guardiola’s singular approach following his arrival in Manchester? Some players, after all, have appeared to need a whole season to settle in. “I wouldn’t say that. It took me some time to adjust to my new team-mates, a new style of playing, a new city, a new league. But his demands, when I arrived, were something I really liked a lot. It’s something I identify with: to be playing for a team where everybody fights every year to win titles and is never satisfied. I like to work with those demands every day.”

It is worth noting that when Bernardo moved to east Manchester in 2017, a month short of his 23rd birthday, this was not his first experience of big-club pressure. He did his growing up, remember, with Benfica, serving Portugal’s most popular team as a youth player, ballboy and eventually senior pro. Indeed, he rolls up the left sleeve of his dark sweater to reveal a tattoo of Benfica’s Latin motto, ‘E pluribus unum’ (Out of many, one). It is an attachment that endures. On 7 November, the day after scoring in City’s Manchester derby victory at Old Trafford, he returned to the Estádio da Luz to watch Benfica’s 6-1 victory over Braga – a moment shared with City colleagues and fellow ex-Benfiquistas Rúben Dias and João Cancelo prior to joining up with the Portugal squad.

“Benfica are a big part of my life,” he elaborates. “I grew up going to Benfica matches with my father and my friends. Besides that, I played at Benfica for 12 years – from the age of seven until 19 – so it’s almost half my life. When I left I was 19, almost 20, and it was a very difficult change because I wasn’t expecting it. But it turned out to be a good thing, to change and move to Monaco. But, speaking of Benfica, they’re an important part of my life. Not only as a supporter but also later as a player, and that helped me a lot to grow.”

“Everybody fights every year to win titles and is never satisfied. I Identify with that”


One particular reason for that growth was the influence of Fernando Chalana. A much-loved, big-moustached Benfica and Portugal winger of the 1980s, Chalana was Bernardo’s coach at a significant moment in his teens. “Chalana came into my life as my coach during a not-so-good stage of my life, when I wasn’t playing. If I’m not mistaken, I was 15 or 16. When you’re a kid and you don’t play, you start losing some of your confidence; you start not being sure that you’ll achieve what you want to achieve. To have someone like him who believed a lot in me – one of the best players in the history of Portuguese football and Benfica – helping me the way he did, was very important.”

The impact of significant coaching figures brings us back to Guardiola. Bernardo has spoken of his “honest” relationship with him. Has the Catalan actually changed the way he sees football? “Absolutely,” comes the reply. “Not only with Pep but with every coach. When I was 19 I felt I was a better player than when I was 18; when I was 20 I felt I was a better player than when I was 19.

“Here at Manchester City, every year I feel like a better player mainly because of how I understand the game, how I understand what the game needs at each stage. Sometimes the team need to speed up the game, sometimes the team need more possession. The game asks for different things and this experience and ability to understand it, especially in a team like ours, has helped me grow. And having a coach like Pep, who likes controlling the rhythm of a game and likes having possession and also likes to dominate the game, it drives us all to win a lot, year after year.

“It’s hard and good at the same time, because he’s a very demanding coach. He’s a coach who doesn’t let the players rest. He’s a coach who, at Barcelona, at Bayern and now at Manchester City, is used to winning – and winning year after year, never letting up. Even after a season when we won several titles, he’s a coach who always demands more from us, and always wants to win and win and win.

“So it’s been a very good experience, especially in terms of the level of this team’s ambition. It’s not easy as the quality in the squad is very high and the competition for places is also really high. Having a coach who’s always pushing us to the limit is, no doubt, really important.”

The ultimate ambition remains the same as when he arrived in the northwest of England: to win the Champions League. City came closer than ever last May when they marched into their first final. The outcome, a 1-0 defeat by Chelsea in Porto, “was a tough blow, we’re not going to deny that. Getting to that final and losing it wasn’t easy, but that’s football. These players have played dozens of finals. Fortunately, we’ve won more than we’ve lost.

“Football goes on. When you win, the following year you’re there to win again. And when you lose, the following year you’re there to try to win what you lost. Unfortunately, in the Champions League we’ve not yet achieved what we wanted to, which is to win the competition. Last year we managed to get a little bit further – we reached the final. As I said, it was a tough blow but this year we’re going to fight once again.”

It is ten years ago now, in the 2011/12 season, that City first competed in a Champions League group stage, and their pursuit of the prize under Guardiola had met some painful ends long before Porto. After the away-goals defeat by Bernardo’s Monaco team in 2017, he was in a light-blue shirt for the three successive quarter-final losses that followed against Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Lyon – the Spurs defeat courtesy, again, of the now defunct away-goals rule.

“Here at City, Every year I feel like a better player because of how I understand the game. This has helped me grow”


“The team are getting more and more experienced, more and more capable in these important phases – when they reach the quarters-finals or semis and the final – of giving a good response. Because these competitions are completely different from the Premier League, from a competition with 38 games. These are competitions where small details make the difference, a small mistake can knock us out. So you need to be really good; you need a bit of luck as well. And you need a lot of focus.”

A more recent case in point was City’s first European defeat of the present campaign at Paris Saint-Germain. They had three times as many goal attempts as their hosts and Group A rivals but succumbed 2-0, Bernardo himself striking the crossbar when just a metre or so from goal in the first half.

“They’re games that are decided by small details,” reiterates Bernardo, who made amends with a Player of the Match display when City won the return fixture 2-1. His exquisite lay-off for Gabriel Jesus’s winning strike was just one of the 47 successful passes he made – out of 47 attempted – on an evening spent back in a false nine role. Guardiola’s men offered their followers fresh reason to believe in their Champions League prospects.

Bernardo’s own haul as a City player includes three Premier League titles, one FA Cup and four League Cups, but there remains that European Cup-sized hole to fill. “It would mean a lot because it’s the competition the club have never won.  This is a club that’s been clearly dominating in England and the European title is what’s missing. So, for the fans, players and, of course, everyone who works at the club – for the board and the staff – it’s something very important.”

Cue the swelling chorus of the Champions League anthem. Perhaps, with a bit of practice, Bernardo could even sit down at his piano and play along.

Insight
True or false?

Manchester City’s striker-less system

At times last season City played with one and even two false nines. This season, with Sergio Agüero gone and their summer pursuit of Harry Kane unsuccessful, they have continued in the same vein. Pep Guardiola’s side began their Champions League bid with Ferran Torres occupying the role in the 6-3 home rout of Leipzig, and since then Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden have all had a turn in the slot. On occasion their 4-3-3 starting formation gives way to a front five, with Bernardo himself among the men moving across the line of attack. So far, so good: as we go to press, City have the second highest goals tally in the group stage but no player among the top six scorers (spreading the goals among nine players and an own goal). Could City actually win the Champions League without an established centre-forward?

Pointing to last season, Bernardo replies, “Kun [Agüero] was unfortunately injured for a long time and the team still reached the Champions League final and won the Premier League. I think it’s different having a striker like Kun in the team or having a false nine like we’ve been playing lately, but I think the team have been fine. We have other positive things that playing with a false striker brings us. Then it depends on what the club want – if they want to keep playing with a false nine or if they want a more fixed striker.”

In one sense, at least, the dog has something in common with his master. At home, away from the professional demands of being a footballer with the champions of England, Bernardo likes to save on energy too. “Every time I leave a training session or a game and go home, I try to forget football,” he admits. “I try to not watch many games at home. I spend time with my family and my friends; with my girlfriend and my dog.”

Rather than watch football, he likes to cook – “I’m a good cook but I only make simple, easy and healthy dishes,” he says – and during the first Covid-19 lockdown, he took up a fresh hobby in learning the piano, though he has let that slip of late. “I don’t know why but I stopped and I need to start playing again because I’ve forgotten almost all of it!

“Before Covid-19 I’d try to travel,” he goes on. “If I had a day or two off, I’d go to London or hop on a plane and go to someplace close, like Paris or somewhere similar. Now, unfortunately, I can’t do that because we can’t travel, but I try to distract myself and take advantage of everything outside of football.”

If this all suggests an openness, a curiosity about life, the perception would not be misplaced. City insiders say the very same about the Bernardo they see here each day: a bright and chatty 27-year-old with a gift for languages and a love of a joke, who cuts across the different groups that naturally form in a large multinational squad of footballers.

It is not the sole reason why he is one of the most respected players at City. There is his contribution on the field too, where he is similarly intelligent and versatile. This is a player who spent much of his first three years in Manchester playing as an inverted winger, a left-footed forward stepping in from the right.

At times last season, he took on the role of a false nine during the prolonged absences of the now departed Sergio Agüero. This year, with record-signing Jack Grealish added to City’s wide attacking options, Bernardo has stepped back into midfield, operating in a No8 position from which he moves forward with Kevin De Bruyne to form an attacking quintet whenever City advance. A notable exception was the September league win at Chelsea, when he played as a holding midfielder alongside Rodri – albeit still finding the energy to make penetrating runs upfield.

“When I go home, I try to forget about Football. I try to distract myself and take advantage of everything outside the Game” 


“Obviously, every player has different characteristics and I play better in some positions than others,” he says of his flexibility at City. “On the one hand, it’s good to be able to play in many positions. On the other hand, it’s very difficult because you lose your [usual] routines. When you have the routine of playing in the same position every week, it gets easier and you end up performing better. But, of course, I believe that a player who understands the different phases of the game can play in various positions – in any position.” And does he have a favourite? He offers a diplomatic response. “I prefer not to say it but I do, of course.”

Some argue that his current midfield role is his best because he seldom gives the ball away – a trait he shares with City’s original Silva, David, now immortalised in the form of a statue outside the club’s ground. If Phil Foden was once considered the Spanish Silva’s heir apparent, the young Englishman is now blossoming higher up the pitch, leaving Bernardo to stitch passing patterns further back.

For the record, Bernardo feels David Silva was “underappreciated” – even with that statue – because “nowadays people, unfortunately, look a lot at goals and assists instead of looking at the game”. As for Bernardo himself, whose future at City had a question mark beside it not so long ago (amid suggestions he was seeking a return to southern Europe), he is more appreciated now than ever.

Turning back the clock to where it all began for Bernardo and the Sky Blues, David Silva was on the opposing side when he first played at the City of Manchester Stadium almost five years ago. Then, Bernardo was in the red and white of Monaco for a storming Champions League round of 16 first-leg tie in February 2017. “A bit of a crazy game” is how he describes a contest in which Monaco led 2-1 and 3-2 before eventually succumbing 5-3. “It was a match that created a desire in me to play in the Premier League, to play in England and, at the end of the season, City asked me if I wanted to come here. I think it was an easy answer because in that match I got a taste of the atmosphere, the way football is experienced in England.”

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Bernardo was part of a Monaco side that won Ligue 1 that spring, a side featuring talents such as Fabinho (“a warrior”), Radamel Falcao and an 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé, who struck in both legs. If that was English football’s first encounter with the now Paris Saint-Germain marksman, Bernardo was already well acquainted with his powers.
"Football goes on. When you win, the following year you’re there to win again"

“When he arrived in the first team for the first training session he was 16 years old. And I remember, after the first or second session he had with us, going to João Moutinho and both of us were like, ‘Wow, who is that kid?’ He was really special because you could see from the beginning that he was different, he wasn’t afraid of coming at us, coming at the older guys, and dribbling past two or three players. Usually when you’re 16 you’re a little bit afraid of the big guys, but he’d go at the defenders and just ‘kill’ them. Then, after two years, he started playing more often with us, and now he’s one of the best in the world.”

As for Bernardo, author of the pass for Mbappé to open the scoring in Monaco’s 3-1 second-leg success, he left his own calling card in that away-goals triumph. Pep Guardiola, his future coach, certainly took note. “I think those two matches may have changed the course of my career because, at the end of the first game, I crossed paths with Pep in the mixed zone. I was giving a TV interview and so was he. He came up to me, saying, ‘Congratulations on the match,’ and we spoke a little bit about it. He also congratulated us for our performances in the French league and so, in a way, it was maybe the beginning of my decision to come to Manchester later.”

And just how was the challenge of adapting to Guardiola’s singular approach following his arrival in Manchester? Some players, after all, have appeared to need a whole season to settle in. “I wouldn’t say that. It took me some time to adjust to my new team-mates, a new style of playing, a new city, a new league. But his demands, when I arrived, were something I really liked a lot. It’s something I identify with: to be playing for a team where everybody fights every year to win titles and is never satisfied. I like to work with those demands every day.”

It is worth noting that when Bernardo moved to east Manchester in 2017, a month short of his 23rd birthday, this was not his first experience of big-club pressure. He did his growing up, remember, with Benfica, serving Portugal’s most popular team as a youth player, ballboy and eventually senior pro. Indeed, he rolls up the left sleeve of his dark sweater to reveal a tattoo of Benfica’s Latin motto, ‘E pluribus unum’ (Out of many, one). It is an attachment that endures. On 7 November, the day after scoring in City’s Manchester derby victory at Old Trafford, he returned to the Estádio da Luz to watch Benfica’s 6-1 victory over Braga – a moment shared with City colleagues and fellow ex-Benfiquistas Rúben Dias and João Cancelo prior to joining up with the Portugal squad.

“Benfica are a big part of my life,” he elaborates. “I grew up going to Benfica matches with my father and my friends. Besides that, I played at Benfica for 12 years – from the age of seven until 19 – so it’s almost half my life. When I left I was 19, almost 20, and it was a very difficult change because I wasn’t expecting it. But it turned out to be a good thing, to change and move to Monaco. But, speaking of Benfica, they’re an important part of my life. Not only as a supporter but also later as a player, and that helped me a lot to grow.”

“Everybody fights every year to win titles and is never satisfied. I Identify with that”


One particular reason for that growth was the influence of Fernando Chalana. A much-loved, big-moustached Benfica and Portugal winger of the 1980s, Chalana was Bernardo’s coach at a significant moment in his teens. “Chalana came into my life as my coach during a not-so-good stage of my life, when I wasn’t playing. If I’m not mistaken, I was 15 or 16. When you’re a kid and you don’t play, you start losing some of your confidence; you start not being sure that you’ll achieve what you want to achieve. To have someone like him who believed a lot in me – one of the best players in the history of Portuguese football and Benfica – helping me the way he did, was very important.”

The impact of significant coaching figures brings us back to Guardiola. Bernardo has spoken of his “honest” relationship with him. Has the Catalan actually changed the way he sees football? “Absolutely,” comes the reply. “Not only with Pep but with every coach. When I was 19 I felt I was a better player than when I was 18; when I was 20 I felt I was a better player than when I was 19.

“Here at Manchester City, every year I feel like a better player mainly because of how I understand the game, how I understand what the game needs at each stage. Sometimes the team need to speed up the game, sometimes the team need more possession. The game asks for different things and this experience and ability to understand it, especially in a team like ours, has helped me grow. And having a coach like Pep, who likes controlling the rhythm of a game and likes having possession and also likes to dominate the game, it drives us all to win a lot, year after year.

“It’s hard and good at the same time, because he’s a very demanding coach. He’s a coach who doesn’t let the players rest. He’s a coach who, at Barcelona, at Bayern and now at Manchester City, is used to winning – and winning year after year, never letting up. Even after a season when we won several titles, he’s a coach who always demands more from us, and always wants to win and win and win.

“So it’s been a very good experience, especially in terms of the level of this team’s ambition. It’s not easy as the quality in the squad is very high and the competition for places is also really high. Having a coach who’s always pushing us to the limit is, no doubt, really important.”

The ultimate ambition remains the same as when he arrived in the northwest of England: to win the Champions League. City came closer than ever last May when they marched into their first final. The outcome, a 1-0 defeat by Chelsea in Porto, “was a tough blow, we’re not going to deny that. Getting to that final and losing it wasn’t easy, but that’s football. These players have played dozens of finals. Fortunately, we’ve won more than we’ve lost.

“Football goes on. When you win, the following year you’re there to win again. And when you lose, the following year you’re there to try to win what you lost. Unfortunately, in the Champions League we’ve not yet achieved what we wanted to, which is to win the competition. Last year we managed to get a little bit further – we reached the final. As I said, it was a tough blow but this year we’re going to fight once again.”

It is ten years ago now, in the 2011/12 season, that City first competed in a Champions League group stage, and their pursuit of the prize under Guardiola had met some painful ends long before Porto. After the away-goals defeat by Bernardo’s Monaco team in 2017, he was in a light-blue shirt for the three successive quarter-final losses that followed against Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Lyon – the Spurs defeat courtesy, again, of the now defunct away-goals rule.

“Here at City, Every year I feel like a better player because of how I understand the game. This has helped me grow”


“The team are getting more and more experienced, more and more capable in these important phases – when they reach the quarters-finals or semis and the final – of giving a good response. Because these competitions are completely different from the Premier League, from a competition with 38 games. These are competitions where small details make the difference, a small mistake can knock us out. So you need to be really good; you need a bit of luck as well. And you need a lot of focus.”

A more recent case in point was City’s first European defeat of the present campaign at Paris Saint-Germain. They had three times as many goal attempts as their hosts and Group A rivals but succumbed 2-0, Bernardo himself striking the crossbar when just a metre or so from goal in the first half.

“They’re games that are decided by small details,” reiterates Bernardo, who made amends with a Player of the Match display when City won the return fixture 2-1. His exquisite lay-off for Gabriel Jesus’s winning strike was just one of the 47 successful passes he made – out of 47 attempted – on an evening spent back in a false nine role. Guardiola’s men offered their followers fresh reason to believe in their Champions League prospects.

Bernardo’s own haul as a City player includes three Premier League titles, one FA Cup and four League Cups, but there remains that European Cup-sized hole to fill. “It would mean a lot because it’s the competition the club have never won.  This is a club that’s been clearly dominating in England and the European title is what’s missing. So, for the fans, players and, of course, everyone who works at the club – for the board and the staff – it’s something very important.”

Cue the swelling chorus of the Champions League anthem. Perhaps, with a bit of practice, Bernardo could even sit down at his piano and play along.

Insight
True or false?

Manchester City’s striker-less system

At times last season City played with one and even two false nines. This season, with Sergio Agüero gone and their summer pursuit of Harry Kane unsuccessful, they have continued in the same vein. Pep Guardiola’s side began their Champions League bid with Ferran Torres occupying the role in the 6-3 home rout of Leipzig, and since then Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden have all had a turn in the slot. On occasion their 4-3-3 starting formation gives way to a front five, with Bernardo himself among the men moving across the line of attack. So far, so good: as we go to press, City have the second highest goals tally in the group stage but no player among the top six scorers (spreading the goals among nine players and an own goal). Could City actually win the Champions League without an established centre-forward?

Pointing to last season, Bernardo replies, “Kun [Agüero] was unfortunately injured for a long time and the team still reached the Champions League final and won the Premier League. I think it’s different having a striker like Kun in the team or having a false nine like we’ve been playing lately, but I think the team have been fine. We have other positive things that playing with a false striker brings us. Then it depends on what the club want – if they want to keep playing with a false nine or if they want a more fixed striker.”

In one sense, at least, the dog has something in common with his master. At home, away from the professional demands of being a footballer with the champions of England, Bernardo likes to save on energy too. “Every time I leave a training session or a game and go home, I try to forget football,” he admits. “I try to not watch many games at home. I spend time with my family and my friends; with my girlfriend and my dog.”

Rather than watch football, he likes to cook – “I’m a good cook but I only make simple, easy and healthy dishes,” he says – and during the first Covid-19 lockdown, he took up a fresh hobby in learning the piano, though he has let that slip of late. “I don’t know why but I stopped and I need to start playing again because I’ve forgotten almost all of it!

“Before Covid-19 I’d try to travel,” he goes on. “If I had a day or two off, I’d go to London or hop on a plane and go to someplace close, like Paris or somewhere similar. Now, unfortunately, I can’t do that because we can’t travel, but I try to distract myself and take advantage of everything outside of football.”

If this all suggests an openness, a curiosity about life, the perception would not be misplaced. City insiders say the very same about the Bernardo they see here each day: a bright and chatty 27-year-old with a gift for languages and a love of a joke, who cuts across the different groups that naturally form in a large multinational squad of footballers.

It is not the sole reason why he is one of the most respected players at City. There is his contribution on the field too, where he is similarly intelligent and versatile. This is a player who spent much of his first three years in Manchester playing as an inverted winger, a left-footed forward stepping in from the right.

At times last season, he took on the role of a false nine during the prolonged absences of the now departed Sergio Agüero. This year, with record-signing Jack Grealish added to City’s wide attacking options, Bernardo has stepped back into midfield, operating in a No8 position from which he moves forward with Kevin De Bruyne to form an attacking quintet whenever City advance. A notable exception was the September league win at Chelsea, when he played as a holding midfielder alongside Rodri – albeit still finding the energy to make penetrating runs upfield.

“When I go home, I try to forget about Football. I try to distract myself and take advantage of everything outside the Game” 


“Obviously, every player has different characteristics and I play better in some positions than others,” he says of his flexibility at City. “On the one hand, it’s good to be able to play in many positions. On the other hand, it’s very difficult because you lose your [usual] routines. When you have the routine of playing in the same position every week, it gets easier and you end up performing better. But, of course, I believe that a player who understands the different phases of the game can play in various positions – in any position.” And does he have a favourite? He offers a diplomatic response. “I prefer not to say it but I do, of course.”

Some argue that his current midfield role is his best because he seldom gives the ball away – a trait he shares with City’s original Silva, David, now immortalised in the form of a statue outside the club’s ground. If Phil Foden was once considered the Spanish Silva’s heir apparent, the young Englishman is now blossoming higher up the pitch, leaving Bernardo to stitch passing patterns further back.

For the record, Bernardo feels David Silva was “underappreciated” – even with that statue – because “nowadays people, unfortunately, look a lot at goals and assists instead of looking at the game”. As for Bernardo himself, whose future at City had a question mark beside it not so long ago (amid suggestions he was seeking a return to southern Europe), he is more appreciated now than ever.

Turning back the clock to where it all began for Bernardo and the Sky Blues, David Silva was on the opposing side when he first played at the City of Manchester Stadium almost five years ago. Then, Bernardo was in the red and white of Monaco for a storming Champions League round of 16 first-leg tie in February 2017. “A bit of a crazy game” is how he describes a contest in which Monaco led 2-1 and 3-2 before eventually succumbing 5-3. “It was a match that created a desire in me to play in the Premier League, to play in England and, at the end of the season, City asked me if I wanted to come here. I think it was an easy answer because in that match I got a taste of the atmosphere, the way football is experienced in England.”

Bernardo was part of a Monaco side that won Ligue 1 that spring, a side featuring talents such as Fabinho (“a warrior”), Radamel Falcao and an 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé, who struck in both legs. If that was English football’s first encounter with the now Paris Saint-Germain marksman, Bernardo was already well acquainted with his powers.
"Football goes on. When you win, the following year you’re there to win again"

“When he arrived in the first team for the first training session he was 16 years old. And I remember, after the first or second session he had with us, going to João Moutinho and both of us were like, ‘Wow, who is that kid?’ He was really special because you could see from the beginning that he was different, he wasn’t afraid of coming at us, coming at the older guys, and dribbling past two or three players. Usually when you’re 16 you’re a little bit afraid of the big guys, but he’d go at the defenders and just ‘kill’ them. Then, after two years, he started playing more often with us, and now he’s one of the best in the world.”

As for Bernardo, author of the pass for Mbappé to open the scoring in Monaco’s 3-1 second-leg success, he left his own calling card in that away-goals triumph. Pep Guardiola, his future coach, certainly took note. “I think those two matches may have changed the course of my career because, at the end of the first game, I crossed paths with Pep in the mixed zone. I was giving a TV interview and so was he. He came up to me, saying, ‘Congratulations on the match,’ and we spoke a little bit about it. He also congratulated us for our performances in the French league and so, in a way, it was maybe the beginning of my decision to come to Manchester later.”

And just how was the challenge of adapting to Guardiola’s singular approach following his arrival in Manchester? Some players, after all, have appeared to need a whole season to settle in. “I wouldn’t say that. It took me some time to adjust to my new team-mates, a new style of playing, a new city, a new league. But his demands, when I arrived, were something I really liked a lot. It’s something I identify with: to be playing for a team where everybody fights every year to win titles and is never satisfied. I like to work with those demands every day.”

It is worth noting that when Bernardo moved to east Manchester in 2017, a month short of his 23rd birthday, this was not his first experience of big-club pressure. He did his growing up, remember, with Benfica, serving Portugal’s most popular team as a youth player, ballboy and eventually senior pro. Indeed, he rolls up the left sleeve of his dark sweater to reveal a tattoo of Benfica’s Latin motto, ‘E pluribus unum’ (Out of many, one). It is an attachment that endures. On 7 November, the day after scoring in City’s Manchester derby victory at Old Trafford, he returned to the Estádio da Luz to watch Benfica’s 6-1 victory over Braga – a moment shared with City colleagues and fellow ex-Benfiquistas Rúben Dias and João Cancelo prior to joining up with the Portugal squad.

“Benfica are a big part of my life,” he elaborates. “I grew up going to Benfica matches with my father and my friends. Besides that, I played at Benfica for 12 years – from the age of seven until 19 – so it’s almost half my life. When I left I was 19, almost 20, and it was a very difficult change because I wasn’t expecting it. But it turned out to be a good thing, to change and move to Monaco. But, speaking of Benfica, they’re an important part of my life. Not only as a supporter but also later as a player, and that helped me a lot to grow.”

“Everybody fights every year to win titles and is never satisfied. I Identify with that”


One particular reason for that growth was the influence of Fernando Chalana. A much-loved, big-moustached Benfica and Portugal winger of the 1980s, Chalana was Bernardo’s coach at a significant moment in his teens. “Chalana came into my life as my coach during a not-so-good stage of my life, when I wasn’t playing. If I’m not mistaken, I was 15 or 16. When you’re a kid and you don’t play, you start losing some of your confidence; you start not being sure that you’ll achieve what you want to achieve. To have someone like him who believed a lot in me – one of the best players in the history of Portuguese football and Benfica – helping me the way he did, was very important.”

The impact of significant coaching figures brings us back to Guardiola. Bernardo has spoken of his “honest” relationship with him. Has the Catalan actually changed the way he sees football? “Absolutely,” comes the reply. “Not only with Pep but with every coach. When I was 19 I felt I was a better player than when I was 18; when I was 20 I felt I was a better player than when I was 19.

“Here at Manchester City, every year I feel like a better player mainly because of how I understand the game, how I understand what the game needs at each stage. Sometimes the team need to speed up the game, sometimes the team need more possession. The game asks for different things and this experience and ability to understand it, especially in a team like ours, has helped me grow. And having a coach like Pep, who likes controlling the rhythm of a game and likes having possession and also likes to dominate the game, it drives us all to win a lot, year after year.

“It’s hard and good at the same time, because he’s a very demanding coach. He’s a coach who doesn’t let the players rest. He’s a coach who, at Barcelona, at Bayern and now at Manchester City, is used to winning – and winning year after year, never letting up. Even after a season when we won several titles, he’s a coach who always demands more from us, and always wants to win and win and win.

“So it’s been a very good experience, especially in terms of the level of this team’s ambition. It’s not easy as the quality in the squad is very high and the competition for places is also really high. Having a coach who’s always pushing us to the limit is, no doubt, really important.”

The ultimate ambition remains the same as when he arrived in the northwest of England: to win the Champions League. City came closer than ever last May when they marched into their first final. The outcome, a 1-0 defeat by Chelsea in Porto, “was a tough blow, we’re not going to deny that. Getting to that final and losing it wasn’t easy, but that’s football. These players have played dozens of finals. Fortunately, we’ve won more than we’ve lost.

“Football goes on. When you win, the following year you’re there to win again. And when you lose, the following year you’re there to try to win what you lost. Unfortunately, in the Champions League we’ve not yet achieved what we wanted to, which is to win the competition. Last year we managed to get a little bit further – we reached the final. As I said, it was a tough blow but this year we’re going to fight once again.”

It is ten years ago now, in the 2011/12 season, that City first competed in a Champions League group stage, and their pursuit of the prize under Guardiola had met some painful ends long before Porto. After the away-goals defeat by Bernardo’s Monaco team in 2017, he was in a light-blue shirt for the three successive quarter-final losses that followed against Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Lyon – the Spurs defeat courtesy, again, of the now defunct away-goals rule.

“Here at City, Every year I feel like a better player because of how I understand the game. This has helped me grow”


“The team are getting more and more experienced, more and more capable in these important phases – when they reach the quarters-finals or semis and the final – of giving a good response. Because these competitions are completely different from the Premier League, from a competition with 38 games. These are competitions where small details make the difference, a small mistake can knock us out. So you need to be really good; you need a bit of luck as well. And you need a lot of focus.”

A more recent case in point was City’s first European defeat of the present campaign at Paris Saint-Germain. They had three times as many goal attempts as their hosts and Group A rivals but succumbed 2-0, Bernardo himself striking the crossbar when just a metre or so from goal in the first half.

“They’re games that are decided by small details,” reiterates Bernardo, who made amends with a Player of the Match display when City won the return fixture 2-1. His exquisite lay-off for Gabriel Jesus’s winning strike was just one of the 47 successful passes he made – out of 47 attempted – on an evening spent back in a false nine role. Guardiola’s men offered their followers fresh reason to believe in their Champions League prospects.

Bernardo’s own haul as a City player includes three Premier League titles, one FA Cup and four League Cups, but there remains that European Cup-sized hole to fill. “It would mean a lot because it’s the competition the club have never won.  This is a club that’s been clearly dominating in England and the European title is what’s missing. So, for the fans, players and, of course, everyone who works at the club – for the board and the staff – it’s something very important.”

Cue the swelling chorus of the Champions League anthem. Perhaps, with a bit of practice, Bernardo could even sit down at his piano and play along.

Insight
True or false?

Manchester City’s striker-less system

At times last season City played with one and even two false nines. This season, with Sergio Agüero gone and their summer pursuit of Harry Kane unsuccessful, they have continued in the same vein. Pep Guardiola’s side began their Champions League bid with Ferran Torres occupying the role in the 6-3 home rout of Leipzig, and since then Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden have all had a turn in the slot. On occasion their 4-3-3 starting formation gives way to a front five, with Bernardo himself among the men moving across the line of attack. So far, so good: as we go to press, City have the second highest goals tally in the group stage but no player among the top six scorers (spreading the goals among nine players and an own goal). Could City actually win the Champions League without an established centre-forward?

Pointing to last season, Bernardo replies, “Kun [Agüero] was unfortunately injured for a long time and the team still reached the Champions League final and won the Premier League. I think it’s different having a striker like Kun in the team or having a false nine like we’ve been playing lately, but I think the team have been fine. We have other positive things that playing with a false striker brings us. Then it depends on what the club want – if they want to keep playing with a false nine or if they want a more fixed striker.”

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