Manchester City face Stoke City at the Etihad Stadium this Saturday, looking for their sixth-straight Premier League win. Consecutive thrashings of Liverpool, Watford and Crystal Palace were followed by their biggest statement of intent so far; a dominant 1-0 victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Pep Guardiola has no shortage of stars at his disposal and his attacking players have rightly garnered much attention in recent weeks. Yet, sitting just behind this abundance of flair is Fernandinho, probably the first name on Guardiola’s team-sheet every week.
The Brazilian arrived in Manchester in June 2013 with a reputation as a versatile, box-to-box midfielder – capable of breaking-up play and contributing going forward. He very much fit the bill in his first season at the club, forming a domineering midfield partnership with Yaya Touré. The Brazilian’s tactical discipline and all-round displays enabled Touré to produce the best form of his career, scoring 20 goals and driving City to the league-title in 2013/14.
Since then, Fernandinho has been a main-stay in the Man City team, averaging over 30 league appearances in each of the last four seasons. Contrastingly, Yaya’s prominence has dwindled whilst the likes of Javi García and Fernando have failed to impress in centre midfield. Fernandinho, on the other hand, has been a model of consistency and professionalism.
Jack of all trades, master of one
Upon taking the reigns at City, Guardiola had jokingly boasted that the Brazilian could play in 10 different positions due to his versatility and intelligence – this was very nearly true as Pep successfully utilised Fernandinho at both right-back and left-back against Swansea and Bournemouth last season. Despite this, Fernandinho’s true value unquestionably lies in the holding midfield role.
With three new full-backs joining City’s ranks during the summer, Fernandinho has since been permanently restored to his rightful position. The former Shakhtar Donetsk man has cemented his place as an integral part of Guardiola’s midfield – so integral that he is no longer considered ‘Mr Fixit’ and frequently shipped out to other positions as cover.
As left-back Benjamin Mendy picked up a cruciate ligament injury against Crystal Palace in September, some expected Guardiola to look towards Fernandinho as cover once more. Instead, the Spanish manager opted to mould Fabian Delph into a makeshift left-back rather than sacrificing his crucial holding midfielder.
With İlkay Gündoğan continuing to reach full-fitness, expect Fernandinho to keep his place and position for the foreseeable future. After all, he is the only City player to have played every minute of Premier League football so far this season; a tribute to his importance to the club.
What does he offer?
The Brazilian’s role in midfield is functional and unremarkable. He rarely makes the lung-bursting forward runs commonly seen in his earlier City days under Manuel Pellegrini. Rather than a box-to-box midfielder, the South American is now simply a sitting midfielder.
Tellingly, he is yet to score or assist this season – he simply doesn’t need to with the array of talent in front of him. His job is to get the ball and give it to City’s more dangerous players whilst simultaneously protecting the defence.
When taking a closer look at the statistics so far this season, Fernandinho’s importance to City becomes all the more obvious.
Surprisingly, the Brazilian has completed more passes than any City player and is behind only David Silva in terms of touches. Though his passes are often short and simple, they are crucial in maintaining City’s tempo. He is essentially the pivot in their control of possession, often dropping deep to receive the ball off the keeper or centre-backs before distributing to Silva, De Bruyne or either full-back. Consequently, only the magisterial David Silva sees more of the ball.
Less surprisingly, he also leads the team in terms of tackles and interceptions and is in the top three for blocks, fouls and successful aerial duels. The Brazilian has always been a ferocious presence in the City team but his game management is particularly impressive. His ability to disrupt the game and tactically foul the opposition in pivotal moments is admirable and no-doubt comforting for the rear-guard behind him.
Better than Kanté?
Pundits and analysts often discuss the importance of a player in this mould contributing towards a team’s success – players who sometimes go unnoticed working tirelessly to break-up play and fight for possession. Recently, N’Golo Kanté has received significant acclaim for his relentless performances in consecutive Premier League winning seasons.
Fernandinho doesn’t quite possess the incredible workrate of his counterpart, but in many ways is the better player. Whilst Kanté regularly makes more tackles and recoveries, Fernandinho is unquestionably the finer technician and rarely misplaces passes. He is also far stronger in the air and perhaps the more astute tactician.
The two may be of a similar mould, but in truth, are very different players. Though Kanté has performed at a higher-level over the past two seasons, his one-dimensional, workhorse style can sometimes render him ineffective in more technical battles.
In Chelsea’s 0-1 loss to City on September 30th, Antonio Conte partnered Kanté with fellow Frenchman Tiémoué Bakayoko in holding midfield; a partnership that had been impressive in Madrid earlier that week. However, Guardiola tactically outmanoeuvred Conte on this occasion.
Man City pressed-high at Stamford Bridge, blocking-off passing lanes and isolating Chelsea’s attack. Consequently, Chelsea struggled to play-out from the back and frequently gave away possession. Kanté was industrious in midfield as usual but his and Bakayoko’s efforts were futile. City dominated possession and Fernandinho enjoyed a free-roam of Stamford Bridge, dictating the tempo from deep under little pressure.
Manchester City’s defensive frailties have often been their downfall in recent years, but with Fernandinho consistently operating in front of their defense they look a more cohesive unit. The Citizens may have started last season in similarly imperious form before fading away, but their displays so far suggest they’ll be in it for the long-haul this time around.
Now 32, Fernandinho still has a lot to give towards Pep Guardiola’s cause. The club have endured their fair-share of inconsistent and erratic Brazilian’s in the past but Fernandinho continues to provide an example of what it means to be a professional. The Brazilian is now one of the most experienced in the City squad and will be a leader in their pursuit of a third Premier League title.