Manchester City's Fernandinho finds his feet to give club added power in title race
Midfielder is loving life in Manchester, he tells Ian Herbert, where he’s desperate to win the battle of the Brazilians in tonight’s Chelsea match that may decide who are champions
You only have to compare the quality of his English now with six months ago to know that Fernandinho is cemented into Manchester and the impression extends to his enthusiastic response to the story that he has taken to listening to local radio to help the language along.
“Yes, BBC Manchester, you are right,” he says. “I listen to the Manchester news on local radio. It has helped me learn English. I have it on when I am driving to training in the morning. I like the radio because it makes you listen. When you are talking to me in a room like this, I look at your lips and try to learn – but when you are listening on the radio you can’t see but you can hear...” Carlos Tevez he ain’t.
It is no calamity that there’s no translator to help him navigate through this discussion of his team and their match against Chelsea on Monday night.
The difficult part of interpreting what Fernandinho has to say belongs to us, not him, because he speaks rather faintly, though that is not a metaphor for his football.
As a 28-year-old who had spent five years playing in the inconspicuous surrounds of Ukraine and won a mere five Brazil caps, Fernandinho seemed an improbable individual to add a more imposing quality to a City midfield which the club’s director of football, Txiki Begiristain, rapidly concluded was in need of it.
Yet there were hints of what City had signed in the 4-1 Manchester derby victory last autumn and then his two-goal match-winning display in City’s magisterial 6-3 victory over Arsenal in December which signalled his full arrival.
That Arsenal game revealed him to be a more imposing presence than Gareth Barry with more muscular strength to marshal the midfield and then drive forward beyond it. The challenge is to balance the defensive and attacking roles. “I get some chances to score but I do my job. When I go to sleep I put my head on the pillow and have a clear conscience,” he says.
On Sunday Gary Neville described the City system to which Fernadinho is integral as “energetic, high-intensity football with a twist of subtlety akin to what Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund delivered last season.” Though 4-4-2 football is seen as outdated these days, Fernandinho and Yaya Touré in central midfield were allowing Manuel Pellegrini to use that system, Neville argued.
These are midfield players “with power in their body strength and legs driving forward. It’s the job Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javier Martinez did for Bayern last season and Ilkay Gündogan and Sven Bender did at times for Dortmund,” he said.
There is no false modesty about this from Fernadinho. He knows he is delivering for Pellegrini and he wants Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari to see it for himself.
With the knee injury sustained by Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva likely to keep him out until April, there is a feeling that the City player will be in the squad for Brazil’s friendly against South Africa in Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium next month, with Scolari’s 23-man World Cup squad to be announced only 63 days later.
“A lot of my rivals [for a Brazil place] are playing in the [Chelsea] game,” Fernadinho says, with his great friend and former Shakhtar Donetsk team-mate Willian in mind, as well as Ramires. “There is also Lucas and [Tottenham’s] Paulinho but those [Chelsea players] are the main guys in the frame for Scolari. He needs to watch this game!”
Monday night’s match-up with Ramires has the potential to be especially revealing. The two possess the same build, stamina levels and potential to enforce the midfield and connect it through sudden, rapid bursts into offensive areas.
They first came up against each other when Shakhtar and Chelsea clashed in last season’s Champions League. As an integral performer in the October 2012 game at the Donbass Arena, Fernandinho emerged with the spoils in that one-to-one battle, as well as a 2-1 win, which partially explains Chelsea’s interest in him last summer.
“There was some contact between Chelsea and Shakhtar but nobody from Shakhtar told me about it,” he says. “I was a little bit surprised because they already have Ramires.”
He takes issue with the notion that City play football with a Brazilian style. “I don’t think so,” he says. “I think it is more Spanish the way we play here.” The most successful Brazilian sides are more typically English because when Brazil try to keep the ball like Spain, it seems they do not play so well, he argues.
“You think about past World Cups… in 2006 it was a fantastic Brazil team, but we did not do so well that year. Quarter-finals. In 2010 the same, it did not go far either. Only the quarter-finals. But in 1994 and 2002 Brazil did not play the best football but they won the World Cup. Even though they did not play the best football they found a way to win.
“Back in Brazil they talk about the great teams they had in ’82 and ’86 – fantastic teams to watch, great players. But they didn’t win. You think about those players – Zico, Falcao. You could say they were the best team. But they didn’t win.”
Which could conceivably be the danger for City: that Jose Mourinho’s more attritional team take the title, rather than Pellegrini’s – who are indisputably the best, man for man. “We pray that it won’t be. I don’t think so,” Fernandinho says. He cites City’s 2-0 win at Newcastle United last month. “It was a real battle. We had to fight – but we showed we can do that as well.” We are about to learn if the confidence of Brazil’s new Mancunian is built on solid foundations.
Battling Brazilian: Fernandinho's tackles
Fernandinho has taken little time to adapt to the abrasive nature of the Premier League. The Brazilian averages 3.3 successful tackles per match – only four players have more this season.
M Schneiderlin (Southampton) 3.9
E Pieters (Stoke) 3.7
J Ward (Crystal Palace) 3.5
M Debuchy (Newcastle) 3.4
M Jedinak (Crystal Palace) 3.3
Fernandinho (Man City) 3.3
(Minimum 20 Prem starts)
The midfielder has scored three goals in 30 games for City – two in the 6-3 win over Arsenal in December and the opening goal in last month’s 3-2 win at Swansea. He has also been booked six times.