Having spent eight years at the club, the return to Shakhtar Donetsk was always going to be a big occasion for Fernandinho. But his first Manchester City start of the season was lent added significance given his role in Pep Guardiola’s side. The Brazilian wasn’t just being deployed in defence as a one-off – this was an audition for the medium term.
Even before the news emerged on Tuesday that John Stones had suffered a muscle injury that will keep him out for at least a month, there had been speculation about the prospect of the England international’s partnership with Nicolas Otamendi proving costly for City. Those fears only increased once it became clear Guardiola is down to one fit centre-back.
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Fernandinho is not Aymeric Laporte, nor is he Vincent Kompany, but he does have the leadership qualities of the latter. His display in City’s routine 3-0 win over Shakhtar suggested that he also shares Kompany’s ability to step in after a time in the shadows and make it look easy. This was his first start in five months but he looked comfortable throughout in Kharkiv.
Fernandinho’s only previous minutes this season had come as a substitute when he came on for the injured Laporte with City already a goal up at home to Brighton. He was in the back four that day too. “Different position, different role,” he said at that time. “But whatever the manager needs I will be ready and try to do my best as always.” So it proved again.
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His distribution was impeccable, misplacing only one pass throughout the first half and that was an ambitious lofted ball over the top that almost succeeded in playing in Raheem Sterling. His best pass of the match was an excellent raking ball to Riyad Mahrez that showcased the distribution skills that he can bring to this team even from within the back-line.
Defensively, his only concerns were caused by his own team-mates rather than anything that the opposition did. When Moraes cut inside Kyle Walker, Fernandinho was able to do enough to put the striker off his shot. When the same player darted in behind early in the second half, he had him covered until Ederson caused confusion by rushing off his line.
Fernandinho’s key moments vs Shakhtar
2 – Plays a purposeful early pass to Sterling7 – Steps out from the back line and confidently intercepts8 – Almost picks out Sterling with a lofted pass in behind23 – Competes in the air attacking a corner but cannot connect cleanly27 – Excellent long-range pass to Mahrez29 – Left exposed by Otamendi but Rodri commits foul and is booked35 – Covers after Moraes runs inside Walker but Ederson saves38 – Involved in the build-up to Gundogan’s goal44 – Moraes runs in behind but Ederson does enough48 – Adjudged to have fouled Moraes by the touchline 51 – Tracks run by Moraes but brief danger as Ederson rushes out60 – Fouls Moraes again near the halfway line
That aside, Fernandinho had the demeanour of a man who could cope with this sort of test at 54 let alone 34. The question that Guardiola and the Manchester City supporters will be asking is whether or not his presence in defence could be more problematic when the team faces bigger challenges than the one posed in this Champions League opener.
It is already apparent that there will be no compromises when it comes to Manchester City’s high line. There was plenty of space in behind the veteran midfielder if their opponents had been able to find the time, space or quality to pick out the pass. Will that be an area that could be exploited by better opposition in their forthcoming fixtures?