zenduck.me: Antonio Silva The oldschool Benfica teenager who took on Bonucci

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“Everyone knows Bonucci’s history in European soccer. In soccer, you don’t pay attention to names. The most important thing is to defend Benfica, and that’s what I tried to do.”

It was quite a sight to see Antonio Silva, aged 18, standing up to Leonardo Bonucci and wagging his finger at the veteran defender, a caps-centurion for Italy and hero of their European Championship triumph in 2021, after Benfica had equalised against Juventus last September and caused a stir with their celebrations in Turin. The teenager’s comments afterwards only added to his growing status among Benfica supporters.

Silva’s emergence last season was a remarkable story for everyone connected with Benfica, bearing in mind we are talking about a player who had never made a first-team appearance prior to Roger Schmidt being appointed coach in May of last year. Indeed, he had only featured twice for the B team.

Twelve months later, Silva had started 44 games for Benfica, including all 10 matches the club played en route to reaching the Champions League quarter-finals. He was a mandatory pick at centre-back alongside the experienced figure of Nicolas Otamendi – a classic master and pupil partnership.

Looking back, it was an extraordinary baptism for Silva.

In his first 11 appearances for the first team, he played every minute against Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus home and away, coming up against Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi, Neymar and Dusan Vlahovic among others, and didn’t lose a match.

Benfica quickly rewarded Silva with a five-year contract – the buy-out clause is reported to be £88million ($112m) – and a call-up to the national team followed. Silva featured at last winter’s World Cup for Portugal, went on to win the championship with Benfica and has been linked with several top Premier League clubs – a startling chain of events for a boy who, in the eyes of many, had come from nowhere.

Within Benfica’s academy, there was a mixture of pride and pleasant surprise.

“We knew that he could achieve first-team level, that he could be a starter in the future. But I cannot name one person that was expecting that he would get there, play, stay in there straight away, and play in the Champions League at such a young age and so frequently in the starting XI,” Pedro Marques, Benfica’s youth technical director, told The Athletic in February.

Silva’s breakthrough was the product of a perfect storm. Schmidt taking over as coach meant everyone at the club got a fresh start. On top of that, the German was genuinely interested in the Lisbon side’s academy. Silva impressed during pre-season but, crucially, Benfica had a spate of injuries in defence that presented an unlikely opportunity – an opportunity he grasped spectacularly.

Antonio Silva faces up to Cristiano Ronaldo (Photo: Gualter Fatia/Getty Images)

“Roger Schmidt saw Antonio, a guy that didn’t only have potential but was also performance already,” explains Filipe Coelho, who spent 16 years working in Benfica’s academy before leaving in the summer to join neighbours Estoril. “But there’s no doubt that if there are no injuries in the squad, Antonio will probably take some time to reach this level – (now Manchester City stalwart) Ruben Dias played for the B team for three years.”

Dias and Silva get mentioned a lot together, which is not surprising. As well as being another central defender who came through the Benfica academy, Silva also wears the No 66 shirt – the number that Dias had on his back when he played for the club.

“I look up to Ruben a lot,” Dias told CNN during the summer before he broke into the first team. “He started playing here and look at all the things that he achieved at Manchester City, and also in the team at Benfica. It’s important for me to have my references to reach the top.”

Listening to coaches who have worked with both Silva and Dias, there are similarities between the two but also differences, as players and also as personalities.

Dias, for example, was a natural leader from a young age – “He was like a general,” Rodrigo Magalhaes, the academy’s technical co-ordinator, explained in February – but struggled on the ball in his early years, so much so that some of the Benfica scouts wondered why the club were persevering with him.

Silva, in contrast, was always very comfortable in possession but not – perhaps surprisingly, given his confrontation with Bonucci – particularly vocal on the pitch.

Indeed, he struggled to settle when he first moved to Lisbon to take up a residential place at Benfica’s academy in Seixal, after impressing at the club’s regional talent centre in Viseu. Silva’s family lived over 290km (almost 200 miles) away and he ended up going back home for 12 months.

“We managed to get a club where he could train for one more year, then we tried again the year after,” Marques said. “He adapted better, and we took it from there.”

Coelho offers fascinating insight on Silva as a player and a person, including an example of why clubs need to be patient when trying to get players to come out of their shell.

“I remember Ruben’s (Dias) personality since the beginning gave us a sense of leadership but Antonio was clearly the opposite,” he tells The Athletic.

“In the under-17s, we tried to talk a little bit with him about communication and being the leader of the team, and we noticed that kind of approach, or pressure to talk with his team-mates and be a commander on the field, almost broke a little bit how comfortable he was in the game. So we didn’t talk any more about that.

“I think naturally Antonio is now becoming a leader, and that gives us a good example that each player is different and they have their own time to grow and to develop their personality in the game.”

Analysing Silva’s game reveals a maturity beyond his years.

He looks after possession, often playing simple passes (his smarterscout chart rates his link-up play volume at 88 out of 99), and is adept at carrying the ball out of defence. Without the ball, he is proactive in his defensive actions per minute, making tackles, blocks and clearances. In fact, Silva can be refreshingly old-school with his defending at times.

When Coehlo thinks about Silva’s ability on the ball, he remembers the training sessions where he would be working on improving how the team pressed and be left scratching his head after the young defender found a way to play through the attackers.

“He is very good at hiding his decision,” Coehlo explains. “You think you are closing the spaces and he finds another solution – normally a better solution than the coach. He is very good with short passes or even breaking that line of pressure in a long way.”

There are a couple of examples below.

The first is from the Champions League group game away to PSG. Mbappe is on the ball, trying to thread a pass in behind. Silva is the defender on the white dot.

The ball is intercepted and falls at Silva’s feet. With the score 1-1, 11 minutes remaining in an away game, and Mbappe breathing down his neck in his own penalty area, Silva could be forgiven for putting his foot through the ball.

Instead, he coolly guides a pass into the feet of Enzo Fernandez…

…who is able to turn, play another forward pass…

…and Benfica are now not just in possession but counter-attacking.

The next situation highlights what Coelho was talking about when he described how Silva is adept at “hiding his decision” and “breaking that line of pressure in a long way”.

This time, Juventus are Benfica’s opponents and the Italian side are pressing high up the pitch in Lisbon.

Watching this footage, it is hard to see an “out” ball for Silva. But he refuses to panic (several seconds pass) as he sizes up his options before…

…pinging a raking diagonal from one side of the pitch to the other — bypassing the Juventus press, going over the top of the Benfica midfield and picking out…

…Alex Grimaldo, the Benfica left-back, on the opposite touchline.

Silva likes that diagonal to Grimaldo and often plays it higher up the pitch, as shown in the next two screen grabs.

It is interesting to listen as Coelho reflects further on Silva and Dias as players.

“I think Antonio is a little bit more clever on decision-making with the build-up,” he adds. “On the defensive side, I think Ruben always showed a little bit more capacity of being very strong, on tackling, on information. And sometimes Antonio gives us the notion of just doing what it’s enough to do. But they are both great centre-backs.”

Silva is not lightning-quick but his capacity to anticipate, read the game and sense danger means he often gets to the ball first anyway.

In the next grab, from the Champions League home match against PSG, Benfica are two against two on the touchline.

Alexander Bah, their right-back, is up against Nuno Mendes. Silva, circled, recognises that Bah could be exposed and sprints across…

…covering the ground quickly…

…and making a no-nonsense clearance that stops Mendes in his tracks.

Dealing with Mbappe is a different proposition and, understandably, there were times when the PSG striker caused him problems. But it was also interesting to watch how Silva adjusted his positioning – and remember, we are talking about a player who was only 18 at the time – to ensure he wasn’t caught out.

In the passage of play below, Marco Verratti looks to release Mbappe in behind Silva, who is circled.

But Silva, taking up a much deeper position than partner Otamendi and wisely giving himself a yard or two on Mbappe…

…is able to win the header and then…

…volley clear, much to the delight of the Benfica crowd.

Silva loves a header.

Earlier in the same game, Mendes tries to clip an out ball up to Mbappe:

Silva, circled, sees it coming:

Stepping in front of Mbappe, he attacks the ball with such force that his header…

…lands in the PSG penalty area.

On defensive set pieces, Silva’s forehead is like a magnet for the ball.

Circled in the grab below from that match in Turin, Silva is zonal rather than man-marking, and that gives him a free run to attack the ball with real conviction:

He towers above Arkadiusz Milik and heads clear with such power…

…that Benfica are able to get 20 yards up the pitch.

Naturally, that aerial prowess makes Silva a threat in the opposition area too. A regular scorer at youth level for Benfica, he finished last season with five goals to his name. “The way he can impact on set pieces is very interesting,” Coehlo says. “He’s a clever guy and he has a sense of where the ball is going.”

In other words, right place, right time.

This clever flick, from just inside the six-yard box against Estoril last November, is a case in point.

Silva’s first goal for Benfica had arrived a fortnight earlier and, perhaps fittingly given what had gone on in Italy the previous month, Juventus were the opposition.

This time, Silva is too busy knee-sliding to be worried about Bonucci.

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Rachel Orr)