Manchester City have a glut of stars, match-winners and game-changers – more than any other Premier League side.
Pep Guardiola is fortunate enough to be able to call upon Sergio Agüero, Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sané, Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Riyad Mahrez, David Silva and Bernardo Silva.
The reigning champions have coped without De Bruyne for much of the season with injury befalling the brilliant Belgian. Agüero has spent periods on the bench while Guardiola kept Sané out of the team at the start of the season.
Yet City coped without three of their most influential players. Their wobble only started when the Catalan tactician wasn’t able to field Fernandinho.
The Brazilian destroyer has something of a conservative role. Similar to the one Claude Makélélé used to play for Chelsea, he’s there to do the dirty work but he’s also got the ability on the ball to fit in with Guardiola’s total football approach.
Without the 33-year-old in their team, the current Premier League leaders look mortal. Forced to watch on from the sidelines, with injury ruling him out, as City lost three of the four matches in which they weren’t able to name Fernandinho in their starting XI.
Guardiola was was quick to highlight Fernandinho's importance to his side. "It is not necessary to lose three games from four to say how important Fernandinho is to us," Guardiola said. "It is a specific position, we don't have his qualities again. He is an incredible player."
City have won six of the seven matches the ex-Shakhtar Donetsk star has started since his return. For the first time in two months, they’re back at the summit of the English top flight.
Guardiola’s biggest show of faith in the dynamic midfielder was his use of him in the win over Arsenal. Just days after losing to Newcastle United, City faced a prolific Arsenal side. Spearheaded by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, Unai Emery’s men could have caused the home side all kinds of problems.
In this situation, most coaches wouldn’t tinker. But Guardiola isn’t like other coaches. He opted to bench John Stones and use Fernandinho as a centre-back. Not in the traditional sense, however, with the Brazilian encouraged to join the midfield when City attacked before slipping back into a defensive role when Arsenal regained possession.
It gave the home side superiority in two-thirds of the pitch, all because of one player. While Stones has played in a defensive midfield role at times he’s not as natural as Fernandinho.
Afterwards, Guardiola spoke about wanting to get an extra midfielder into his side: “We've used the full-backs like (Oleksandr) Zinchenko and Fabian Delph coming inside to play one extra midfielder and we used that situation with Fernandinho. And I saw İlkay Gündoğan in the last period was in incredible top form and that’s why I wanted to use more midfielders in that game.”
The tweak to Fernandinho's position, going from defensive midfielder to centre-back, may not have seemed like much at all but the 33-year-old changed his style on the day.
He played fewer passes, made fewer tackles and interceptions while winning more aerial duels and playing almost twice as many long balls.
Many midfielders tasked with playing in defence try to ensure there's not a dramatic shift in how they approach the game. But Fernandinho fully immersed himself in becoming Guardiola's ball-playing centre-back.
That mentality is why, despite heading into the twilight of his career, he's still one of City's most important players. And it's why they're now putting even more pressure on Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table.
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