‘He is coming back,’ Pep Guardiola reassured the fans after a first Premier League loss of the season, giving the news of Kevin De Bruyne’s imminent return an almost-Messianic feel going into the run up to Christmas.
Not that Saturday’s loss to Chelsea should be read as the inevitable result of an injury to a key player. ‘What happened when [Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero] were not here?’ asked the Manchester City manager after the match. ‘We won every game. Of course, I would like to be with Sergio, with Kevin, but the guys did an incredible performance today.’
But the announcement that City’s Belgian midfielder will be returning to training in around a week’s time raises questions about how Guardiola will set up his team with a full complement of midfielders now available to him.
In many respects, the loss of De Bruyne this season was offset by the fact that Bernardo Silva had been brought into the club as an eventual replacement for his namesake David. With Riyad Mahrez coming into the squad over the summer, Bernardo Silva was easily redeployed into the midfield three, neatly solving the problem caused by De Bruyne’s ACL injury.
How good, though, has the diminutive Portuguese midfielder been? Has he earned a starting place ahead of the Belgian?
The Case for the Defence
Having picked up his original injury in the opening game of the season against Arsenal, Kevin De Bruyne has only played 236 minutes this season in all competitions, making a further two substitute appearances and two starts before suffering another knee injury.
Only 81 of these 236 minutes came in the Premier League and so comparing Manchester City in the league this season to last season should give something of an indication of how De Bruyne and Bernardo Silva compare in the central midfield areas.
With De Bruyne getting injured midway through August, one of the most notable areas that has seen the impact for Manchester City has been their pressing game.
The graphic below, which appeared in an article on Football Whispers, shows that Fernandinho’s defensive actions per 90 minutes have gone up over the period which correlates neatly with De Bruyne’s absence. (The last two game in August came against Huddersfield and Wolves).
On top of this, the likelihood of their opposition reaching the final third increased from 36.0%to 41.4% in the same period while the number of opposition possession sequences which involved 5 passes or more went up from 17.0 to 26.75 per game.
This would suggest that City’s press is less effective with Bernardo Silva and David Silva in the midfield areas than when Kevin De Bruyne was playing there. With De Bruyne back in the team, you might expect them to be a little tighter defensively.
Of course, the role of the two midfielders playing ahead of Fernandinho in the Manchester City team is as much offensive as defensive. How do De Bruyne and Bernardo compare on that front?
One of the best metrics by which to compare them on this front is Expected Assists (xA). To determine a player’s xA values, you total the Expected Goal (xG) values from the assists they create. The higher the value, the better the chances they’re creating are.
Last season, according to Understat, Kevin De Bruyne had an xA value per 90 minutes score of 0.38, putting him slightly ahead of his midfield partner, David Silva, who picked up 0.33 xA per 90. Bernardo Silva, playing as a wide midfielder, only managed a figure of 0.18 xA per 90 during that time.
Moving Bernardo Silva into the midfield has seen a sharp increase in his xA values. He now finds himself up at 0.31 xA per 90. Perhaps more surprising, though, has been the impact he has had on David Silva’s xA score: the senior Silva is now up at 0.46 xA per 90 for the season, suggesting he is enjoying the midfield partnership with Bernardo.
Whilst it would be inaccurate to suggest that this increase in David Silva’s productivity is entirely down to his new midfield partner, it also shouldn’t be overlooked that this change has seen an uptick in output from the Manchester City midfield.
Silva vs Silva?
It is generally accepted that Bernardo Silva was brought in as a long-term replacement for the gradually-aging David Silva. This might seem to suggest that the two midfielders are too similar to be played together.
In fact, the underlying data suggests that this isn’t the case. Take, for example, the work done by Ashwin Raman, comparing Premier League midfielders this season.
When it comes to passing, David Silva is unrivalled. The graphic below shows how the Spaniard combines accurate passing with creative output, outstripping Bernardo on both counts.
This isn’t to say that Bernardo Silva does not play a vital role in the Manchester City midfield. As the following graph shows, Bernardo’s role this season has been more similar to the role you might expect Kevin De Bruyne to adopt: picking up the ball and driving at opposition defences.
With De Bruyne out of the team, Manchester City have performed at the same sort of level if not higher than they did last season even with Bernardo Silva deputising for the Belgian maestro.
Every Silva Lining has a Cloud
To suggest that Manchester City have missed Kevin De Bruyne is hardly controversial. He is the sort of calibre of player that any team would have missed him.
Guardiola, however, is fortunate enough to have replacements in the form of Bernardo Silva which means that his team have not suffered as they might have done in the Belgian’s absence.
It is clear that City are not the same without De Bruyne but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been just as good if not better whilst he has been out. Which raises a final question: will Guardiola be faced with an even bigger problem when he returns?
With three elite midfielders all vying for two positions, the Catalan coach will have to contrive some sort of rotation plan which satisfies all three for the remainder of the season.
This could be easier said than done. De Bruyne has last season’s statistics on his side; Bernardo Silva has this season’s statistics on his.
Funnily enough, then, Guardiola’s biggest problem this season could come as the result of having too many good players rather than too few.