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Defensive midfielders come in many forms.
There’s the deeply liar playmaker, who uses vision and intelligence to control things from between the lines. There’s the winner of the ball, who relies on physicality and boarding ability to interrupt play, and there’s the anchor, who reads the game and racks up interceptions for fun.
What is special about Fernandinho is that these three descriptions fit him perfectly. Even now, at the ripe age of 35, she still manages to blend these contrasting roles without breaking a sweat.
Fernandinho’s ability to multitask was never more apparent than during the 2017/2018 season. This was one of the best league campaigns in the history of modern football, with Manchester City recording 100 points and losing twice throughout the period.
Throughout the season, Fernandinho played behind Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva in a 4-3-3. On paper, the ultra-attacking setup shouldn’t have worked. However, Fernandinho made sure he did so by doing the defensive work of his midfield teammates so they could focus on rampaging.
Their ability to protect the four behind allowed De Bruyne and Silva to play tall and most importantly wide, helping City create the devastating overloads that led to the majority of their 106 Premier League goals.
Sweeping the entire width of the field, Fernandinho was not only confident in his impressive physique, but also in his ability to see the game several frames ahead of his opponents. Many times the opposition had the vague hope of hitting the champions against them, only to see their way to the goal guarded by the all-seeing Brazilian. This saw him racking up 94 tackles and interceptions combined over the course of the season.
If he could not stop the opposition by legal means, Fernandinho would resort to the much maligned ‘tactical fault’. Characterized as a pure and unadulterated evil by sections of the English media, this generally involved him assessing the threat of attack from his opponents and bringing it to an abrupt end if he felt City could not handle it.
The intelligence to use this tactic wisely and regularly while only receiving seven yellow cards throughout the season should not be underestimated. It speaks to Fernandinho’s incredible knowledge of his team’s system, as well as his speed of thought.
He was willing to defend himself against accusations of being Guardiola’s main tactical fouler during an interview with the Telegraph in 2018.
“I’m a good guy. Look, I’ve heard what has been said. But most of the time, I get the ball back without fouling. I smile because I’m a happy guy.”
Despite his penchant for the dark arts, characterizing Fernandinho as an outstanding player solely on the defensive side of the game would do him a disservice. He is also extremely proficient in possession, always offering his teammates an incredibly safe pass exit when they find themselves in a difficult situation. During the 2017/2018 season, he received no less than 2,497 passes, poorly controlling only 17.
He also didn’t always keep things safe. Of his 2,614 completions, 277 were for more than 30 yards, many of which were major changes that put the opposition under significant pressure. When the season ended and he won the title, Guardiola was eager to emphasize how important Fernandinho had been, as the midfielder revealed to club website.
“Pep said he would keep him out of the team because they asked him if he would play for Manchester City from 2017-18. From his point of view, I am better than him when he played.”
While the 2017/2018 campaign represented him at his peak, since then there has been plenty of evidence of his world-class ability.
The following campaign saw much of the same from Fernandinho. He helped his team retain their Premier League title by playing an almost identical role. When he was away, City missed him very much.
When he was ruled out in December with a thigh problem, the Citizens lost back-to-back games to Crystal Palace and Leicester, and his inability to fill the gaps left by their forward midfielders proved to be a key problem.
These defeats sparked frenzied concern among the City fan base about how they would replace Fernandinho. This is a question that continues to haunt the club to this day.
Last season, Fernandinho had to occupy the center-back position in all but three of his 30 Premier League games. While he performed well, proving to be Guardiola’s most reliable defender by some distance, his presence in the defensive midfield was greatly missed.
His replacement, Rodri, may be confident in possession, but lacks the mobility and awareness to compare himself to his predecessors in a defensive sense.
While his absence wasn’t the only reason City racked up 17 fewer points last season, it did play an important role. The fact that Guardiola continues to be so dependent on a 35-year-old to this day speaks volumes for Fernandinho’s remarkable versatility and world-class talent.
Without him keeping things together on defense and in possession, there’s no chance City would have clinched back-to-back Premier League titles in such a memorable way.