Pep Guardiola may not admit it but Fernandinho is his insurance that gives Manchester City licence to attack

The Brazilian midfielder is smart enough to know when to shut down opponents illegally without being sanctioned - as he demonstrated so astutely against Manchester United

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Monday 12 November 2018 08:40
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Pep Guardiola praises Man City's defence after derby win

Pep Guardiola bristled when Gary Neville pointed out last month how many fouls Fernandinho makes each game, stopping opposition counter-attacks, but he cannot have been too upset to see the success of the same tactic on Sunday afternoon.

Guardiola could never admit that he tells his players to foul – “I would never ask my players to deliberately foul an opponent” – but he must also know that his players understand their responsibilities. And the way City play, defending high up the pitch, with everyone except for two or three outfield players committed forward, only sharpens their tasks.

“The responsibility on me is big,” Fernandinho admitted out this week. “I have conversations with Pep all the time about my role, and also with Mikel Arteta. It is my job to fix things in the middle of the pitch. If the opponents break our lines and are attacking our box, something has gone wrong with me. And it is me who has to fix it.”

Sure enough on Sunday afternoon Fernandinho was as important as ever. City dominated possession but they were up against a Manchester United team with an obvious gameplan, to counter-attack with their fast front three of Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial.

Yes, City were far superior for the start of the first half and almost all of the second. But the way City play means that they are always vulnerable on the break no matter how well they are playing. Because every time they lose the ball there is space for the opposition to exploit.

This game could have been one for United to make the most of those gaps. But instead Fernandinho did everything possible to stop them from breaking through. It was a performance to sum up everything good about Fernandinho, and which shows why he is such an effective performer. At times he broke the rules, fouling opponents as a last resort. But there is a skill to know when to do that while getting away with it.

It started early enough when Fernandinho made an obvious foul on Lingard which other players might have got booked for. But Fernandinho has a great gift for committing bookable offences that don’t lead to a card, as Neville and Martin Keown have pointed out recently. There is a special knack to doing that, one that players like Mark van Bommel and Thiago Motta have mastered in the past. Fernandinho has that same skill, and if he had been booked for that foul on Lingard it might have been a different game.

It was Fernandinho's interception that set-up Sergio Aguero for the second goal

But as it was, Fernandinho was unburdened by a booking and could continue to play his natural game with his usual ruthlessness. When Kyle Walker and John Stones were dragged apart and Rashford passed through the gap, Martial was left with space to run into. He cut inside to shoot and there was Fernandinho, shuffling across just in time to block the shot.

Then, early in the second half, when David De Gea’s kick put Lingard in trouble, there was Fernandinho to steal the ball from him and pass to Bernardo Silva. Seconds later City had a 2-0 lead.

Pep Guardiola refused to admit that Fernandinho is employed to shut down the opposition (AFP/Getty)

Through the second half Fernandinho continued to make crucial interceptions against Lingard, Marouane Fellaini, Ander Herrera and anyone else who was trying to take the ball through his space. And when Luke Shaw was too quick for him, Fernandinho was able to fall on him from behind, sending him flying, another foul that a less clever player would be booked for.

But then Fernandinho is a master of his role, and of his area on the pitch. Maybe he gets lucky with decisions but when it happens this often there is more to it than that. He has made himself Guardiola’s ultimate insurance policy, the man who is so secure at the back that he allows everyone else to go forward. And even though people are wise to it now, they are not quite as astute as Fernandinho himself.

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