As Manchester City launched its ultimately unsuccessful attempts to sign a marquee striker during the transfer window, one player was regularly touted as a makeweight in negotiations.
Bernardo Silva wanted to leave — City manager Pep Guardiola even said as much in a news conference — after a tough couple of seasons in which the Portugal playmaker slipped out of favor as a regular in the team, at least in the English Premier League, and also unwittingly got embroiled in a racism case that earned him a ban.
So when City started to make moves to sign Tottenham striker Harry Kane in the offseason, Bernardo was referenced as the player who could go the other way to help fund the transfer.
When City moved on from Kane and was offered the services of Cristiano Ronaldo, Bernardo reportedly was again seen as a key part of any potential transaction, in this case to free up room in the squad for his Portugal teammate.
In the end, the status quo was maintained. City went into the season without a recognized striker and Bernardo hung around for a fifth season at the club.
Was either of the parties satisfied? Most likely not.
But the early signs are they’ve moved on well from the awkward last few months.
After four games of the Premier League, City is the joint top scorer with 11 and finding multiple routes to goal through its mass of top-class midfield players.
Bernardo, meanwhile, might have been City’s best player so far this season, his latest notable effort the only goal in a hard-fought win over Leicester on Saturday.
“We’re happy he’s still here,” Guardiola said after the match at King Power Stadium, where Bernardo was part of an unchanged starting lineup for a third straight game — the first time that has happened under Guardiola at City.
Bernardo can easily be forgotten about amid all the talk of City’s talent-laden midfield, especially now Jack Grealish — the club’s big summer signing for a British-record $139 million — has joined a cast already comprising of the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, Riyad Mahrez, Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling.
He isn’t a prolific scorer. He doesn’t put up the assist numbers of De Bruyne, though few can. A YouTube compilation of Bernardo’s best moments probably wouldn’t be as compelling as that of, say, Foden or Grealish.
Yet few players embody Guardiola’s vision and approach than Bernardo, with his technical ability on the ball and his unyielding work rate off it. Few players are admired more by the Spanish coach and City’s fans.
Indeed, it was Bernardo whose relentless performances pushed City to the league title ahead of Liverpool in their duel in the 2018-19 season, when De Bruyne was out injured for much of it. At the start of that season, Guardiola described the makeup of his team as “Bernardo and 10 more players.”
With Foden and De Bruyne regaining full fitness after injury concerns, Bernardo’s game time will be challenged in the coming weeks, starting on Wednesday when Leipzig visit Etihad Stadium for their opening game in a Champions League group also containing Paris Saint-Germain. City is still searching for its first title in the competition after losing to Chelsea 1-0 in the final last season.
But City’s inability to sign a striker means Guardiola essentially is fielding five attacking midfielders in every game this season. There’s a good chance Bernardo will improve on his 26 appearances in the Premier League last season, a total which may have contributed to his desire to leave.
It’s in the Champions League where Bernardo’s skillset might be cherished more by Guardiola, considering the midfield dominance he craves against the best teams in Europe. It was in this competition where Bernardo really caught Guardiola’s eye — in the 2016-17 season while playing for Monaco, which eliminated City in the last 16 — and the Portugal international started every knockout game in City’s run to the final last season.
Guardiola also spoke at the weekend of the importance of having left-footed players, which Bernardo is, in his team to give balance and a better flow to its attacks.
Even if this is to be Bernardo’s final season at City, expect him to still play a key role.