When Fernando joined City in June of 2014 (after a failed winter transfer the previous January), the signing was well received by both fans and media types. Here was the prototypical #6 that City appeared to be lacking – a hard-tackling, no-nonsense, defensive midfielder that would allow Fernandinho to play a more box-to-box role, while also allowing City to play three in midfield.
And yet, City didn’t play a proper 4-3-3 with Fernando holding, recycling and shielding until a 2-0 home win against West Ham on the 19th of April. It was in that match that City fans were finally treated to the player most assumed the club was getting back in June. Importantly, it was also the first time in almost 12 months that Fernando played the position he excelled in back at Porto. And that’s where cautious optimism comes in when judging his first year for City and the future.
It’s fair to say Fernando underwhelmed in his debut season at City. His passing range looked limited, he offered very little during City’s build up phase of play, and he often looked a step behind in protecting the defence during opposition counter-attacks. But that doesn’t mean he’s bad or useless as much as it means he struggled to adjust to an a) new league, b) new team and c) new role within a new formation. That’s a whole lot of new when you consider the bigger picture.
It’s a whole lot different to shield a back four that looks more like a back two because of the attacking positions routinely taken up by City’s fullbacks, while simultaneously playing alone in midfield because an unnamed midfield partner sauntered back into position (really truly, I don’t want this to become about Yaya’s laziness or defensive inabilities, so let’s leave it at that, yeah?). And I think this is my primary point: Fernando spent seven years playing as single-anchor defensive midfielder with two CMs shuttling on either side of him. At City, he played largely in a 4-4-2 with little to no help from his midfield partner while shielding aggressive centre-backs who are routinely pulled too far out of position.
It’s not an accident he looked considerably better after City switched to a 4-3-3 and while he didn’t light the world on fire, he’s not supposed to: he’s a pure #6 – a defensive midfielder who should be breaking up counters, shielding centre-backs, winning the ball and recycling it to the players tasked with building play. That’s when he’s at his best and it’s up to the coaching system to find a way to utilize those strengths while hiding his weaknesses.