Fernandinho has become the linchpin for this Manchester City team once again. He carried the entirety of the club’s defensive midfield depth on his shoulders last season until Ilkay Gundogan’s breakthrough and will now be forced to bear a similar responsibility in central defense with Aymeric Laporte out until early 2020 at the earliest. In fact, City’s collection of center backs is so thin at the moment that we may have seen the last of Fernandinho at the base of the midfield simply because he’s now so valuable as a member of the backline.
Last Saturday was the Brazilian’s first experience in his new position, entering the match in the 36th minute as Laporte was stretchered off. The 4-0 final score indicates a more casual introduction than it truly was and undercuts the fact that he was challenged by an unusually ambitious Brighton attack.
An evaluation of Fernandinho’s performance is primarily positive, but there was a notable question mark sprinkled in.
When City’s backline would drop back in recovery as Brighton countered, Fernandinho had a habit of dropping further than the rest. He exhibited this tendency both in transition and stable stretches of opposition possession, disrupting the structure of the defensive line while also extending the area where runners in behind are kept onside regardless of context.
It may seem like a small mistake to make, but City are a team that plays a high backline and every inch, millimeter, and blade of grass may be the difference in whether the opposing attacker through on goal is offside or not. It’s in these nuances of playing within a backline that Fernandinho will be most challenged. He will have to add this extra layer of awareness to his game and he’ll undoubtedly do so, it’s just a matter of when and if City are punished before he does.
But let’s also give credit where credit is due because Fernandinho showed why he may be the next successful midfielder-to-defender conversion from Pep Guardiola on several occasions. Many of the things that he’s great at as a defensive midfielder translate perfectly to the center back position. Even at the age of 34, Fernandinho’s pace is still there and he’s well accustomed to running towards his own goal in defense.
His ability to track opposing attackers and cut out counters in isolation was impressive for a first time center back. Fernandinho has always had a physicality unmatched by most in the Premier League and that skill will pay dividends in central defense. His combination of strength and pace is rare and should give him an advantage against a variety of attackers.
The veteran Brazilian has also been a staple of City’s rabid counterpress over the years and is well suited to step forward to break up progressions, albeit from a deeper starting positions now that he’s dropped into the backline.
City fans are well aware of how intelligent Fernandinho is on the pitch and his ability to anticipate what the opposition will do (on display in the sequence above) gives him a head start on the transition to the new role. Fernandinho has everything he could possibly need to thrive in this positional change and could be fill the distributive void left by Laporte’s absence. He has the physical profile and technical skills to be a great center back and the best coach out there to point him in the right directions.
John Stones and Nico Otamendi will be the first choices for Guardiola in the near future, but it’s reasonable to expect Fernandinho to fill in the gap as City navigate through a congested schedule that will require squad rotation. There is even the possibility he thrives so much in central defense that he’s the one operating alongside the injured Frenchmen upon his return.
That isn’t to say there won’t be growing pains because there absolutely will be. The intricacies of the position are still foreign to him and it will take time on the pitch to truly understand them. Pep Guardiola likely didn’t want to throw Fernandinho into the deep end this early in the season, it’d be logical to maximize his time on the training pitch before putting this experiment to the test in matches that actually matter. Yet these plans often get derailed and he has to be ready now. He’s a long way from being a finished product, but he’s one of a handful of players we should trust to be able to handle a steep learning curve.