David Silva knows how to beat Manchester United. He did it no fewer than eight times as a Manchester City player, finding the net four times in 10 years against the Old Trafford outfit. The Spaniard was a member of the City team that famously claimed a 6-1 win at the home of their greatest rivals back in October 2011.
For City, Silva was an icon and one of the greatest players in the club’s history. It was therefore a shock to the system when the playmaker made the decision to leave the Etihad Stadium at the end of last season when Pep Guardiola surely would have liked him to stick around for another year at least.
Now at Real Sociedad, Silva will have the chance on Thursday to prove he can still cut it at the elite level of the game, with the Basque side up against United in the last 32 of the Europa League. The 35-year-old has quickly become a key figure for La Real, adding some experience and know-how to what was already an exciting team under Imanol Alguacil.
The opponent is familiar, as is the meaning. By the end of his tenure, Manchester City had proven they were one of the world's top clubs, but that was not the state of affairs when Silva arrived in England as a 24-year-old in 2010. City hadn't won a meaningful trophy since 1976, when they hoisted the EFL Cup. The club proceeded to win the FA Cup in Silva's first year and followed that with their first top-flight trophy in 44 years the next season, with the midfielder serving as their main protagonist.
Real Sociedad find themselves in a similar position. Their 33-year trophy drought is punctuated by 39 years without earning the top honors in La Liga. There's a symmetry to Silva's opportunity in San Sebastian, as the midfielder tries to quickly push his new club towards a trophy. Of course, the difference in resources between his old club and his new is vast, meaning Silva has an even larger bit to play. But that doesn't mean the Basque side should be under-estimated.
Indeed, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his players mustn’t take Real Sociedad lightly. Manchester United have suffered at the hands of a Basque side in the Europa League before, with Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Club putting the Red Devils to the sword in the competition back in 2012. La Real have the talent to do similar.
Mikel Oyarzabal is an injury doubt ahead of Thursday’s match, but the 23-year-old is one of the best young creators in La Liga right now. Mikel Merino is also one of the division’s best midfield pace-setters, recently forcing his way into the Spain squad. Then there’s Igor Zubeldia, the ball-playing central defender who has improved with almost every game he has played over the last two seasons.
Silva won’t be the only familiar face for United in the Real Sociedad team. Adnan Januzaj was once the Old Trafford club’s next big thing, making his breakthrough in the dark days following the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. The Belgian, however, failed to build on his impressive start as a United player and allowed his career to drift.
“I don't have to prove to anyone, I know my qualities,” Januzaj, who has found a home in northern Spain, explained in an interview before Thursday’s Europa League encounter. “I don't have to prove to anyone how good I am, I just have to believe in myself, get my games and be happy.”
Last season for Real Sociedad was largely defined by the impact Martin Odegaard made on loan from Real Madrid. The Norwegian was one of La Liga’s very best performers, impressing to such an extent that Zinedine Zidane felt compelled to recall him early from a loan stint that was originally meant to span two seasons.
The loss of Odegaard had the potential to shale Real Sociedad’s spirit as a team, but the signing of Silva saw Imanol’s side achieve a seamless transition. Silva is a slightly different profile of player to Odegaard — he is not as relentlessly energetic as the Norwegian, who has now been sent on loan to Arsenal for the second half of the season — but he has taken over as La Real’s creator-in-chief.
Manchester City have moved on since Silva’s departure, with Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan both stepping up this season, but the memory of what the Spaniard did during his time in England remains vivid. If it has faded at all, Silva has the opportunity provide a reminder of his brilliance against an old foe.