Gilberto Silva is unassuming as ever, an understated world champion and Arsenal Invincible. The Brazilian remains softly spoken, unpretentious and borderline shy after years on the global football circuit, where arrogance and egotism are often commonplace.
He chuckles at the idea that he exudes typical ‘Mineiro’ qualities. Humility and hard work are among the core values in his home state Minas Gerais, rather than the general flamboyance that is so often associated with Brazilians. “It’s a bit more discreet,” says Silva. “On the field, I was like that – the position I played in wasn’t a role that drew a lot of attention. I did my work in an efficient manner for the team.”
Silva earned the nickname The Invisible Wall in a team that represented the zenith of Arsenal’s club history and Arsene Wenger’s managerial career. “That year every player had something uncommon – which was a profound confidence in the group,” explains Silva.
“It was a natural process, it grew and the motivation was always present – to train well and to win games. And so, when we got close, we didn’t let the title slip. With four matches left, we were already champions. The main objective had been reached. That was difficult. You relax naturally, so it was a process of concentration [to remain unbeaten].”
Silva arrived at Arsenal after winning the 2002 World Cup with Brazil and competed with his younger compatriot Edu for a place in midfield. Having joined Arsenal a year earlier, Edu taught Silva everything about Arsenal and the club’s culture. On the pitch, he struck up a crucial understanding with Patrick Vieira.
“Edu was a great companion,” recalls Silva. “When I arrived in England, I didn’t speak English. He was fundamental for my adaptation. He oriented me. On the field there was competition, but always with mutual respect. At times we played together. Otherwise, it was Vieira with Edu or me.”
Can any club aspire to emulate Arsenal’s celebrated feat in today’s fast-paced and frantic Premier League? Silva ponders the question of The Invincibles 2.0. “It’s a unique moment in the life of both a player and a club,” he says. “It will be difficult for any other club to achieve this.”
In North London, the memories of The Invincibles have grown somewhat distant in recent years. Celebrating 20 years at Arsenal, Wenger’s reign can be divided into two: the rise and dominance of an idiosyncratic genius, followed by the struggles of a stubborn romantic.
There is a feeling that Wenger may have been overtaken by younger rivals. While he talks about the desire and hunger of his players and the need to spend wisely, his detractors argue that he no longer delivers. They know exactly how Arsenal’s season is going to end: in the top four and the second round of the Champions League.
“It has been many years since Arsenal won the league,” concedes Silva. “Last year, they had a great opportunity, but in the end Leicester clinched the title. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea didn’t play well. It won’t be easy for Arsenal to win the title this season, because other clubs have strengthened. The arrival of [Pep] Guardiola has certainly shaken up the league. It brings another strong contender to the league with Manchester City.”
Guardiola’s advent in England has been fascinating, with the Spaniard already impressing the same brand of attacking football that brought success to Barcelona and Bayern Munich on his new charges at City.
Guardiola has adapted seamlessly to the natural traits of the Premier League – the speed, the physicality and the volume of games – which all subvert one of the cornerstones of his philosophy: pressing. Guardiola has reacted with formational tweaks. In Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva, he plays with two number eights operating in a creative role from the centre of midfield. Raheem Sterling and Nolito provide width on the flanks.
“They are good,” Silva acknowledges after City’s impressive start. He remains cautious, though: “They are top of the league, but it is very early to talk. Perhaps in December or at the turn of the year, we will have a better notion of how the clubs have been playing and get a more concrete projection of who can win the title.”
Among City’s stellar names, there is one player who stands out more than most to Silva. As the robust engine at the heart of the team, there is something about Fernandinho that Silva finds familiar.
“Fernandinho has done an excellent job ever since he arrived at City,” he says. “Discreet and with a low profile. It is important that he continues with the same commitment and dedication.”
Does Fernandinho remind Silva of anyone? He smiles: “His style is quite similar to mine.”