How a change in Fernandinho explains Manchester City’s recent evolution

Brazilian midfielder is as pivotal as ever for City in what might be his final year in Manchester

Fernandinho: The Premier League's greatest Brazilian

After a club-record 12th successive victory, which extended Manchester City’s lead at the top of the Premier League table to four points with a game in hand, one of the main topics of conversation in Pep Guardiola’s post-match briefing was his 35-year-old holding midfielder. It has been that sort of season.

In the past, City left journalists purring at sparkling displays of brilliant attacking football but the defence is the story now.

Saturday’s 1-0 win over bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United – “the toughest game of the season”, Guardiola said, due to baltic conditions in east Manchester – was City’s 20th clean sheet of the season, five more than any other side in Europe’s major leagues.

Much of that has to do with Fernandinho, even if the veteran midfield enforcer has only started for seven of them.

READ MORE: Premier League table and fixtures – all games by date and kick-off time

After the latest commanding midfield display in an eight-year-long City career full of them, Guardiola was asked whether Fernandinho is irreplaceable. It is a question that many at the Etihad have been asking themselves for several years now and, even though the Brazilian is as dependable as ever, the answer may finally be ‘yes’.

During Guardiola’s two title-winning campaigns, Fernandinho’s workload was immense.

He was not only expected to be a traditional destroyer – tackling, intercepting and breaking up counter-attacks with fouls in the defensive phase – but also part of the attack, resisting the opposition’s press, building up play with the whole of City’s attacking structure ahead of him and providing a foundation for those around him.

As a 32 and 33-year-old, he was asked to play the most demanding role in Guardiola’s system – the one the coach once played himself, of course – and despite his ageing years, he excelled at it.

For a time, Fernandinho seemed to be superhuman, but it was unrealistic to expect even more in the years to come.

At 35 years old, Fernandinho continues to impress

And as City moved away from regularly playing him as their single holding midfielder, problems began to arise.

A long-awaited successor was eventually signed in Rodri, but he initially struggled with the intense defensive workload that Fernandinho had made seem second nature. A switch to playing two holding midfielders – with Rodri protected by either Fernandinho or Ilkay Gundogan – was a departure from a key tenet of Guardiola’s philosophy and unbalanced City’s attack.

Now, a compromise appears to have been found. Since Christmas, City have returned to the single-pivot 4-3-3 system that served Guardiola so well in the past.

And to make up for the fact that there is no longer one midfielder able to cover every blade of grass going backwards and forwards, the intensity has been dialled down.

“When we have the ball, we run less,” Guardiola revealed before this game, in an illuminating answer on City’s recent evolution. “I think with the ball now we are more calm, more patient, we have more passes.” This more considered style in possession has helped to prevent counter-attacks and keep all those clean sheets.

Out of possession, Guardiola insists nothing has changed – “running without the ball is in our DNA,” he said on Saturday – but the numbers suggest otherwise. City’s number of pressures-per-game is down by 15 per cent compared to last year. Leeds, Liverpool, Southampton and Chelsea are all pressing more than City this season.

Thanks to this new, slower style, City can rest Rodri every now and again, play Fernandinho as their only holding midfielder against the likes of Sheffield United and Crystal Palace and be confident that things will not fall apart.

“He knows perfectly his role,” Guardiola said on Saturday. “With 34, 35 years old, he cannot play three games a week like Rodri and like Fernandinho could do before. He knows it but he is always ready and hopefully the players can learn off him.

“You cannot imagine the respect that I have for him, it’s something that is special for me from day one until today,” he added. “It is not only on the pitch but also off the pitch, he is just thinking what’s best for the team.”

Fernandinho’s contract is set to expire at the end of the season, he has already had one single-year extension and there is interest from clubs in Europe and his native Brazil. This will be his farewell year as it stands, but a change in style means that City are finally ready to cope without him.

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