Perhaps with the exception of Ederson, no other player is as indispensable and important to Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut side than Fernando Luiz Roza, commonly known as ‘Fernandinho’. Their ridiculously deep squad has an embarrassment of riches in every other position bar his. Manchester City has lacked an able understudy for him for years now. Key transfer targets such as Jorginho, Fred or Frankie de Jong have preferred to move elsewhere in the past. And shoehorning Fabian Delph, John Stones, and Gündoğan in that position hasn’t really worked. Reports claim that Manchester City is going to activate the £63million release clause of Atlético Madrid’s 22-year-old midfielder Rodri Hernández. In this tactical analysis, we take a look at the importance of Fernandinho to this City side and how Rodri can replace him.
Analysing the role in Pep’s scheme
Having been the fulcrum to Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Dream’, it’s safe to say no one understands the intricacies of his system like the Catalan tactician. Throughout his managerial career, he’s placed importance on who gets to be the engine of his steamroller. Whether it was promoting a young Sergio Busquets, buying a 32-year-old Xabi Alonso or converting Philip Lahm from a right-back to a deep-lying playmaker, he’s looked to get the player who can thrive that highly specialised position.
Manchester City, like other Guardiola sides, employ ‘Juego de Posicion’, the deep-lying playmaker is the fulcrum around which both their attacking phase, defensive transition and defensive phase rotate. Pep’s system involves slow structured passing scheme where the emphasis is laid on progressing the ball into the final third in a gradual manner and achieving a positional and numerical superiority in the key areas. Xabi Alonso describes it best:
“Playing better is not about reaching the opponent’s goal faster, it is arriving there with better conditions”
During the first phase of build-up, it is of utmost importance to not only be able to play through the press cleanly but also having the positional awareness to offer passing options. Any turnover in possession in the defensive third is likely to result in a chance to score for the opposition. Once the play progresses to the middle of the pitch or the final third Fernandinho tucks in between the centre-halves and keeps the play moving. The position requires an unerring proficiency to keep the play moving, press resistance along with the tactical and technical prowess to interpret the space and passing lanes.
Another equally important facet of the role comes into play in case there is an overturn in possession. In order to fit in the classic number ’10’s like Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva into the midfield roles, pushing the full-backs high up the pitch whilst playing a high line, counter-pressing effectively is important to the system. The structured play puts players in position in order to counter-press well.
City employ inverted full-backs which means they are stationed in their respective half spaces. This creates a numerical superiority in attack and protects against a counter attack. Fernandinho’s positioning is essential to congest the middle areas of the pitch where the counter-attack is deadliest. Here he can cut off the passing lanes, intercept the ball or commit tactical fouls.
From this position, he can move to either side and help out a teammate who is the pressing the opposition player on the ball by squeezing the space. He helps to decrease the distance required to counter-press effectively.
Fernandinho: the irreplaceable
The Brazilian midfielder signed from the Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk in July 2013, has become one of the best players in his position. “I think Fernandinho can play in 10 positions,” Guardiola said at a news conference.”He has the quality to play wherever. He’s a quick, fast player, so intelligent, aggressive and strong in the air.
When Fernandinho is absent, the loss of aggression, superb passing ability, and exceptional reading of the game in his replacements is very apparent. For two summers now, City has repeatedly looked to strengthen in that position. But all their transfer target have chosen to move elsewhere due to a variety of reasons. Be it better wages (Fred), emotional reunion (Jorginho) or affinity to the club (de Jong), Pep has failed to land his preferred option.
The importance of the Brazilian especially caught widespread attention in December 2018, when Fernandinho was out with an injury. John Stones was moved up to the base of midfield against Crystal Palace as they lost 3-2 at the Etihad. This was followed by a 2-1 defeat to Leicester where İlkay Gündoğan was tried out in that position. In that sequence of three defeats in four games the 34-year-old’s tenacity was sorely missed. “Fernandinho is not available to play so we have to overcome,” Pep said after the defeat to the Foxes. “Gündoğan played good, he was good with the ball. We don’t have this player like Fernandinho in this position, we have to think about it and solve it.”
Guardiola knows he can’t go into another season with the ageing legs of Fernandinho. The Fernandinho dependancy is shown by the fact that City has only won 59% of their games in Fernandinho’s absence since Guardiola took charge. A big contrast to 71.3 win percentage when he plays.
Rodri: the heir apparent
Guardiola has made signing a replacement for Fernandinho an absolute priority. He’s decided to sign a tall and lanky Spanish midfielder from La Liga with incredible tackling and intercepting ability defensively. No, not Busquets. The man chosen is the 22-year Rodri Hernández from Atlético Madrid. You could be forgiven for confusing one for the other as Rodri has been termed the new ‘Busquets’. The similarity in their frame and playing style is so eerie that you could start watching a Spanish national team game at a random point and not figure out who’s playing the role.
Rodri has had a meteoric rise in the past couple of seasons. The smooth midfielder is already one of the best in his position in the world. His playing style has an unerring efficiency and absurd but deceptive simplicity. His ability to receive the ball, invite pressure; just to drop his shoulder and release the ball is majestic. His technical and tactical sagacity makes him one of those who’ve got ‘Pep Guardiola player’ written all over him.
Rodri has a knack of keeping the game flowing, spraying passes all over the field. His numbers match the eye test. His passing accuracy across the season was at a ridiculous 92.5% compared to Fernandinho’s 89.7%. Though Fernandinho played more long balls: with his 4.44 long balls per game to Rodri’s 4.41, Rodri had a vastly superior accuracy. His long ball conversion rate was at 71.3% to Fernandinho’s 59%.
Rodri is a more dynamic player of the two. In a defensive Atlético Madrid team, he completed 1.47 dribbles per game (84.3%) to the Brazilan’s 1.43 at 71.8% success rate.
Any artistic player is often like an artist who’s been handed a paintbrush by their manager to paint a masterpiece on the football canvas. Then there are workhorses: the Claude Makélélés, the N’Golo Kantés, players who do the dirty work allowing the artists to express themselves. Rodri has consistently shown that his artistic ability coexists with his defensive nous. At an average, he won 21.7 duels, had 5.48 interceptions and 11.69 ball recoveries in the opponents half. Compared to that Fernandinho had the following numbers: 19.9, 4.98 and 10.19 respectively.
There’s a reason why Manchester City has faced an impossible task to replace Fernandinho. They’ve tried to shoehorn different players with little success. He’s a jack of all trades and master of one. He’s a brainiac who’s mastered Pep’s system with uncanny ability to always be at the right position defensively. His covers a lot of ground, vastly superior to the Spaniard :
For both players, the zone covered is almost the same. But Fernandinho’s influence on both sides of the halfway line is greater. The eye test is backed by statistical analysis. Fernandinho’s average goals, assists, shot on target and xG are vastly superior. His influence on the offensive structure is critical to City’s ball circulation.
Rodri’s numbers are no doubt influenced by Atlético Madrid’s style of play. City averaged 63.2% possession with an accuracy of 89.1%. Compared to that Atlético had paltry 49.3 % possession at 80.8% completion rate.
Manchester City has completed more passes per game and spent 35% time in the final third. In comparison, Atlético only forays into the final third 29% of the time. City’s attacking nature means they’re always looking for verticality. That means more progressive passes(96.64 pg) and more passes to the final third(81.98 pg). Their numbers dwarf those of Atlético Madrid (77.42 pg and 62.11 pg respectively).
To top it all off City score more than double the number of goals by Atlético from open play.
These factors, in turn, affect the offensive numbers for both the midfielders. Diego Simeone’s preference to sit back and win the ball correlates with Rodri’s great defensive numbers. Fernandinho isn’t far off from those number while having a better influence in the attack.
The Brazilian’s influence is shown by an astounding statistic: they conceded ZERO goals from counter attacks in the 2018/19 Premier League season.
It’s a question of when rather than if when Rodri moves to Manchester City. He will need a period of adaptation to get to the rhythm of the Premier League. Even though he’s a player tailor-made for Pep’s system, it’s going to take a lot of work on his part to get the hang of that highly specialized role.
This tactical analysis showed that Rodri’s got some big shoes to fill. His ceiling is so high that there’s a possibility his inclusion may elevate City’s game to another. He may be the missing piece to win that elusive Champions League crown. Rodri, in turn, gets to learn in the “School of Pep”. Win-win.
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