“I think Fernandinho can play in 10 different positions,” said Pep Guardiola shortly after arriving at Manchester City last summer. “He has the quality to play wherever. He’s a quick and a fast player. He’s so intelligent, aggressive and strong in the air. He could even play at centre-back, as he has the quality to create good build-up play.”
By the end of the 2016/17 campaign, the Catalan coach had indeed used the Brazilian in several of those 10 positions he mentioned. From his natural defensive midfield one to a more creative midfield role. From right-back to left-back. This season, Fernandinho hasn’t been shifted around quite as much on Guardiola’s tactics chalkboard, but he remains just as versatile and willing to shapeshift to the coach’s wishes. He is the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich manager’s Play-Doh.
Guardiola himself has revealed that the 32-year-old is one of the members of the Premier League leaders’ squad who most enjoys tactical discussions and who will knock on the manager’s door to pore over the nuances of his role in the team. “All managers know the value of this kind of player,” Guardiola pointed out in a recent press conference.
In 2017/18, now that City have improved their squad depth, Fernandinho has not had to occupy as many unfamiliar roles and he has instead been anchored in defensive midfield, just in front of the back line. Yet that does not mean the former Shakhtar Donetsk man has been able to relax into monotony. Guardiola asks him to play the position in slightly different ways depending on the overall tactical shape, depending on who he’s starting alongside and depending on the opposition.
In the 6-0 thrashing of Watford, for example, Fernandinho sat deep and slightly to the right, hardly crossing the half-way line. Given the final scoreline, it’s easy to forget that the first quarter of that match was very even and the Brazilian’s ultra-defensive shift kept the Hornets at bay long enough for the team’s attacking talent to shine. He was their insurance policy as the forwards rained down on Heurelho Gomes’ goal. Then there have been some matches in which Fernandinho has been pulled out to the left, such as the clash against Everton in the second round of the 2017/18 Premier League season, when City played a back three and when Fernandinho played something of a defensive-midfielder-cum-left-back role, aiding Nicolás Otamendi in his battle against Wayne Rooney and Mason Holgate. Against Chelsea, for another example, the Brazilian played similarly deep, fortifying the back line and frequently dropping back alongside John Stones and Otamendi to make something of a back three.
On other occasions, Guardiola has stretched this Play-Doh-esque player into a more attacking role, most recently against Southampton. It may have been one of his weaker defensive performances of the season, but what he offered going forward was important. Fernandinho’s average position was in the opposition half during that game, which is something of a rarity, and from this advanced role he attempted four shots and played 28 passes into the final third. On other occasions he has even found the back of the net, scoring long-range stunners against Stoke and against West Brom, a game in which he also came up with one of his three 2017/18 assists.
Guardiola may have a very valid point when he labels Fernandinho as “one of the three best holding midfielders in the world”, yet it should be kept in mind that there are several nuances to what the 32-year-old does in midfield each time he takes to the pitch. The fact that he can tackle, pass, shoot, anticipate interceptions, block, win aerial battles and so much more means that Fernandinho is a joy for Guardiola to work with. No matter what the City coach requires from his No.25, the player is flexible enough and capable enough to provide it.
He is such a coachable player too, improving and improving with every season he plays. “Fernandinho has achieved another level,” Guardiola explained of the midfielder’s progress since he arrived at the club from Ukraine in 2013. Almost every one of his stats have improved from 2016/17 to this year, from pass completion to shot accuracy and percentage of tackles won to blocks per game. His discipline also appears to have gotten better, with Fernandinho yet to be sent off this season and able to begin this December without a three-match suspension for pushing Cesc Fabregas, unlike last year.
We all know that Guardiola is a coach who likes to improve his players and who likes to ask them to perform new kinds of tasks. Yet Fernandinho deserves extra credit for his Play-Doh-like adaptability.