With half an hour to go in this taut, thrilling, at times spiky Manchester derby, David Silva could be seen chugging around at the point of the Manchester City attack, not so much pressing the red-shirted defenders as rumbling between them with a stately kind of grandeur, like a royal frigate in shallow waters.
With Gabriel Jesus off and City leading 2-1 it was Silva, the most false of false No9s, who found himself shunted into that forward role. He has cut a more rotund, slightly more ponderous figure in the last year and a half, but remains a beautifully pure footballer. Here Silva was not only the slowest, least athletic, least physically imposing footballer on either team – he was also the best player on the pitch, so unhurried, so aware of the shifting planes and currents around him that at times he resembled a colts coach mixing in with the under-12s in training, able to peer above the heads, direct the play, call the next pass two steps ahead.
In a match that saw Manchester United’s own £90m centre forward Romelu Lukaku struggle – all ham-footed lay-offs and an inadvertent assist for both of City’s goals – Silva was a striking point of contrast. An oddball centre-forward perhaps, but also the compete oddball centre-forward. At one point in that second half Silva surged down the left channel, held the ball for Leroy Sané’s run and played a beautiful nudged reverse pass, a pass so gentle it seemed to belong in an altogether different game, to be startled to find itself out here surrounded by all this fury. Moments later Silva even took it on himself to make a curving, decoy run, Ian Rush-style, freeing space for Kevin De Bruyne behind him to surge forward and shoot at goal.
If this victory does end up a decisive step towards the league title it was entirely fitting Silva should decorate its best moments. More than any other player, and even as an inherited part, Silva embodies Pep Guardiola’s obsession with pass and move, with making a fetish of the ball, of trying to win every moment in the match.
And yet Silva would perhaps struggle to find a role in the opposition here, a Manchester United team packed with speed and athleticism, but sent out at the start to defend deep and then break with speed.
And what a start it was from United, who spent the opening half hour defiantly silencing their own crowd. This wasn’t just attack versus defence during those wasted opening 43 minutes, it was deep, maniacal, utterly paranoid defence. For long periods Old Trafford seemed to be staging a pub game on a windy day, the ball skirling inexorably towards the United goal, every clearance boomeranging back in the sleet.
Even United’s method of moving the ball forward from the back was extraordinary, something from the Wimbledon playbook under Egil Olsen, “clearing out” the midfield and sending swirling long passes towards the front three, 42 of them in the opening hour. The contrast was, of course, striking. With 20 minutes gone, Vincent Kompany varied the angle for City, skimming a long pass that flew straight through to David De Gea, while in his rectangle Guardiola went berserk, puffing out the wings of his shiny black bomber jacket as he signalled for more patience, more care, more of the same old Pep style.
United were, of course, faced with a ticklish balance of attacking intentions, teased by some obvious weaknesses in City’s defence, tortured by the prospect of being torn apart by the rapiers at the other end should they overcommit to seeking out those tender spots. But this was something else, as demonstrated by the fact United scored from their first concerted attack in first-half injury time, Marcus Rashford finishing expertly after Fabian Delph had failed to cut out a diagonal pass.
By that stage United were already chasing the game. Later Nicolás Otamendi’s neat finish would take it away again. Fittingly, it was Silva who had scored the opener, albeit in the most unexpected way, scissoring home a loose ball after a corner. Up to that point Silva had been majestic in his more accustomed role, keeping the ball, directing City’s attacks, introducing urgency where required, and skipping away from Ander Herrera, with a decisive slow-motion grace. Some players have an extra yard in their head. Silva appears to have an entire practice pitch up there, with the whole game playing on fast-forward on a series of big screens.
At one point, as his legs began to slow towards the end, he could be seen calling out to Raheem Sterling and pointing, telling him where to run to take De Bruyne’s pass, trundling around the pitch like an auxiliary brain in a jar, making every part of the play he touched just that bit better; the most fitting of key parts on a day that saw City take a giant leap forward.