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The Seixal Academy, Benfica’s youth development program, is a talent factory – preparing, packing up, and shipping off players as quickly as it can manage. They have perfected buying low and selling high, securing youth talent for bargain-bin prices and unloading a near-finished product to one the sport’s top spenders only a few years later. In the last five years alone, the Seixal academy has developed and sold Renato Sanches, André Gomes, Gonçalo Guedes, and countless other names that now adorn the starting lineups of club football’s giants.
Despite topping the Primeira Liga table in each of the last three seasons, Benfica’s quick-trigger selling sprees are not always viewed favorably by the club’s most loyal supporters. A “small-money” club like Benfica could not reasonably compete in Europe without letting go of a significant portion of their assets. These sales allow the club to fund their youth academy and field a competitive team across multiple European competitions, all while turning a profit each year – a situation well understood by Benfica fans and Portuguese nationals alike. Their success in this department has allowed them to compete with, and in more recent years overtake, the other members of Portugal’s Os Três Grandes.1 But after Benfica’s historic domestic treble-winning 2013-2014 season, Benfica’s club president, Luís Filipe Vieira, insisted that the focus would no longer be placed on turning a profit from the Seixal academy’s promising talent. Vieira planned to build on the club’s recent momentum by rewarding their finest Seixal-groomed talents with more permanent positions in Benfica’s first team rather than relinquishing them to the highest bidder. However, the 2015 sale of homegrown-talent Bernardo Silva seemed to spit in the face of this newfound approach.
Bernardo Mota Veiga de Carvalho e Silva is a Benfiquista through and through. An Águias Encarnados Glorioso2 fan from birth, the club plucked him up at the tender age of eight. He rose through the club’s ranks quickly, earning his first promotion to the Benfica B squad in 2013. Silva began to dominate Portugal’s Segunda Liga with Benfica B’s number ten, earning the 2013-2014 Breakthrough Player of the Year award while drawing hopeful-yet-warranted comparisons to legendary Portuguese midfielder Rui Costa.
Despite his best efforts for Benfica B, Silva was unable to break into Benfica’s first team – recording only a few scattered appearances for the top squad. He was even relegated to training with the first team out of position as a left back. In order to guarantee meaningful playing time for the promising youngster, Silva was loaned to A.S. Monaco in the winter of 2014. In January of 2015, the loan spell turned into a permanent transfer – with Silva joining Monaco for just over €15 million. Typically, receiving €15 million for a player with only a few first team appearances would be viewed as an overwhelming success; a brilliant piece of business. However, Silva was viewed differently than nearly all other Seixal prospects. His allegiance to the club3 combined with generational technical abilities and a wonderful touch put him firmly in a class of his own among the Benfica supporters. Supporters felt betrayed by Vieira’s decision to sell arguably the club’s most prized possession not long after promising to nurture a homegrown squad – a sentiment further increased by Silva’s remarkable success at Monaco.
After an impressive first two seasons in Monaco, Bernardo Silva has burst onto the mainstream football scene during his remarkable third season with the club. His lively presence in the attacking third has turned the Portuguese international into one of the game’s most coveted prospects – often drawing close comparisons to Lionel Messi based on his remarkable ball control and incomparable agility with the ball. Typically deployed as a right-sided midfielder, Silva is vital to Monaco’s free-flowing and decisive attack.
Though his counting stats are impressive (9 goals and 10 assists in 34 all-competition games this season), the Lisbon-born midfielder’s contributions that don’t appear on the stat sheet are just as significant to Monaco’s success. Silva’s incisive forward runs attract a significant amount of attention, forcing opposition players to break from their ideal positions to confront him as he moves upfield and creating additional attacking space for his Monaco teammates to exploit.
Despite his diminutive stature, standing only 5’8” tall and weighing barely 140 pounds, Silva rarely cedes possession to the opposition. Rather than being knocked to the ground, he bounces off players and continues advancing forward with the ball seemingly attached to his shoestrings. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this skill-set. His close-control is a weapon on par with N’Golo Kanté’s work rate or Paul Pogba’s strength on the ball, capable of changing a game at any moment.
After discombobulating Manchester City’s David Silva, Bernardo Silva fights off challenges from two more players while managing to stay upright before slotting a perfectly-weighted through ball to the streaking striker. Silva’s individual brilliance in a tight spot led to a quality Monaco scoring chance when any lesser player would lose possession and yield a dangerous counter attack.
“I think Portugal now have a good generation with lots of good young players in midfield mostly but I think Bernardo Silva, who plays for Monaco, could be one of the greatest players in the world. He has a lot of quality. He is a good player. He takes risks. That’s why I like him. He can be the No 10 of the national team for years.”
– Deco, Legendary Portuguese Midfielder
The Portuguese magician may only be 22, but he possesses intelligence well beyond his years. His advanced understanding of the game shines through in every aspect of his performances, from his off-ball positioning to top-tier decision making with the ball – both of which he demonstrated wonderfully in both legs of the Champions League clash-for-the-ages with Manchester City.
Once the ball falls to Benjamin Mendy, Silva recognizes a potential 2-on-1 situation against an inexperienced Manchester City attacker. As he drifts towards the sideline and away from City’s Leroy Sané, Silva forces the young German into a tough spot – where he must choose whether to stand his ground against the player with the ball, Mendy, or follow Silva towards the sideline and hope for defensive help to close down Mendy. Sané seems to never fully commit to either course of action, staying somewhat centrally while drifting just enough towards the sideline to allow the Monaco left back a simple cut into the penalty box. While the assist demonstrates Silva’s ability to pick out a man in the box, the more impressive play was his recognition of an exploitable situation during the initial build-up play.
Though the most obvious parallel between Bernardo Silva and Lionel Messi is their signature silky touch, the similarities don’t end there. Silva’s left foot has proven capable of carving up defenses and firing past keepers, not unlike the Argentinian maestro himself.
This effort may not appear overly impressive at first glance, but a remarkable level of both technical ability and touch are required to successfully execute such a pass. Silva sparks a quick counter attack by gently lifting a through ball over the midfield group in front him into the path of a surging teammate. The pass bounces as if landing on a cloud, allowing Silva’s Monaco teammate to pick up the ball without breaking stride or leading him too deep into the Manchester City zone. Though the majority of the analysis to this point has focused on Silva’s ability to dribble through defenses or create opportunities for his teammates, he is no goalscoring slouch, either.
Silva is able to seemingly glide up the field with the ball mere inches from his left foot before firing a thunderous strike past the keeper with a quick flick of his left boot. Keeping the ball tight to his feet allows the Monaco man to quickly unleash a shot while forcing the retreating Spurs defenders to honor his ability to quickly dribble further towards goal – leaving just enough room for Silva to get away a shot. He is comfortable in front of goal, scoring nine goals in 43 club appearances this season – a skill which will only thrive with additional experience and first-team appearances.
Bernardo Silva is not, and likely never will be, in the same realm as Lionel Messi in either technical ability or impact on the game, but his play inspires much of the same joy that comes from watching Messi work his magic. As the sport grows increasingly physical, it is more and more exciting to watch a pint-sized wizard weave his way through the giants and provide an impact on par with football’s finest players. It’s a frightening thought that at merely 22 years of age, Bernardo Silva has provided only a glimpse into his full potential – a fundamental reason why Manchester United, Chelsea, and Real Madrid look ready to splash upwards of €50 million to secure his services. But for now, Silva’s focus remains solely on outlasting the mighty Paris Saint-Germain for the Ligue 1 title and extending Monaco’s Champions League run into the semi-final round.