Of the many telling facts, stats and scalding-hot takes to emerge from Wednesday night’s Manchester derby – a game that felt as if two clubs were passing briefly on airport travelators, waving curtly as they rolled off in opposite directions – perhaps the most poignant was the touch map of Alexis Sánchez.
Sánchez was on the pitch for only 12 minutes. In that time he touched the ball once. There it is, his single point out there in the middle of all that open space, like a sad, lost penguin wandering the tundra, dreaming of krill.
Given the collapse of Sánchez the footballer in the past year it is tempting to apply the old cricket joke about Geoffrey Boycott facing an irresistible Michael Holding at the Kensington Oval. All things considered, Sánchez did well to get one. As peripheral figures go, he has become a compelling subplot in his own right. This is a player signed as a statement of commercial muscle and who remains the most painfully telling aspect in the postmodern drift of Manchester United plc, global retailer of football-flavoured multi-platform product.
The direct point of comparison on Wednesday was Bernardo Silva: not an exact match as a footballer, but still a telling one. In many ways the Portuguese is the anti-Sánchez, just as City in their sporting methods are the direct inverse of the belching, leaking, red-shirted juggernaut from across the way.
He started a little vaguely at Old Trafford. Pushed wide, he completed 21 of his 30 passes in the opening 55 minutes and was bumped around a bit as United tried to assert their advantage in sheer physical size.
By the end he had written his name right across the game. There was that beautifully taken opening goal, and after that an increasingly assertive display of hard-running high craft that has become a benchmark for this second-season team.
There is one obvious reason – or half a million of them each week – why City didn’t take the chance to sign Mr One-Dot when he was available, the man who might have been in Bernardo Silva’s place had things panned out another way. But this was also a tactical choice.
Sánchez’s individualism, not to mention his tendency to lose the ball, would have been a rejection of the basic tone and texture of all Pep Guardiola’s best teams. Plus, of course, City had a different kind of player in mind for that slot, the man from Lisbon who lived in a one-bedroom flat and did his own washing when he played for Monaco, and who has become the most flattering emblem of the Pep end of the City project.
Photograph: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Getty Images
Bernardo Silva was not a headline signing when he arrived in May 2017. By the time City pulled out of the Sánchez rodeo in January last year he had started only six league games. That was also the day City lost 4-3 to Liverpool at Anfield, when he came on as a sub and scored a brilliant late goal.
He started the next five games, the pass on Sánchez coinciding with a moment of personal ignition. Those who saw the best of him at Monaco will say this was always likely to happen, that this hyper-intelligent little warrior of the attacking midfield had it in him to eclipse Sánchez completely as a Premier League player within the space of 16 months.
As indeed he has now, the divergent courses of these two footballing supertankers embodied by the Sánchez-Silva dynamic. As United shrunk a little at Old Trafford, a disjointed bunch of leftovers and occasional star-turns, City played with an increasing sense of unity, the same steeliness that drove them to a second significant title-chasing win against a top-six team in five days.
It is the great paradox of this modern super-club, what you might call the Bernardo principle. From a structural point of view it is tempting simply to marvel at City’s astonishing outlay on players, to feel unease about the use of nation-state funds to distort a sporting league; or to dislike the idea of a venerable old football club being used as a billboard for a dubious Gulf state regime.
By contrast, when it comes to sport and the structures of sport enterprise, City are an exemplary presence. Under Guardiola they have become something uplifting on the pitch, a model of fine coaching and shared endeavour. This is not Paris Saint-Germain, not a vehicle for bolt-on superstars, not a story that starts and ends with money buying success.
Every single player in the City team has been improved, some to a startling degree. None of the current squad arrived as a world star. This is a team of Silva not Sánchez, a lesson in having – of all things – a shared idea of how to play, a coherent scheme of recruitment and a sense at its heart of aesthetic enjoyment in its own performance.
You could see this in the work rate and indeed the physical courage of the players on Wednesday. City fielded their captain, leader, legend and all-round stumble-prone centre-half, Vincent Kompany. Fernandinho and Ilkay Gündogan both started, the closest Guardiola gets to unleashing his dogs of mild peril.
But beyond this they are a titchy team. Early on they were bumped off the ball at times by physically larger opponents. It felt as if it was one of those occasions where the pass-and-move machine might find itself stumbling, works gummed by tension as much as anything else. At half-time City were 45 minutes from seeing the lead in the title race pass back to Liverpool. What turned the game was the shared scurrying efforts of that forward line either side of the interval.
Sergio Agüero, despite not scoring, was still out there running like a maniac, the complete team player under this system. Plus, of course, there was that quietly assertive figure on the right of midfield, who would overnight find himself announced as a deserving addition to the PFA team of the year.
Burnley away and Leicester City at home present threats of a different kind, but City will still expect to retain the league title. If they do there will be the usual talk of over-spend and soft power projects, all of it worthy of debate on its own terms.
Beyond this, sport has a habit of telling its own stories and it is the collectivism in this team, the willingness to improve – what we might call the Bernardo principle – that provides its most salutary lesson.