Manchester City had one of the best seasons in English history last year, hitting the century mark for points, 19 more than second place Manchester United. What’s more, due to their Emirati owners, they were able to strengthen an outstanding squad by adding the 24-year-old Aymeric Laporte to their defense in the January window. They followed that up by poaching Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City this summer—whose 12 goals and 10 assists were the most for any player outside the Big 6 clubs last year.
Benjamin Mendy’s return to fitness means that even their one problem position has been sorted, and City now look balanced and accomplished across the entirety of their squad. It’s no wonder they have been crowned favorites to become the first Premier League repeat champions since 2008-09.
Despite all the positive news coming out of the blue half of Manchester, there has been one notable area in which the team has failed to strengthen. After January stories linked the squad to Fred, and a prolonged flirtation with Jorginho this summer, City lost out on both players to rivals. Surprisingly, they addressed this failure by deciding not to pursue any further backups.
This leaves Fernandinho as the sole defensive midfielder in the side.
Even though he was one of the least heralded members of City’s record-smashing side last year, Fernandinho was also one of its most critical. In fact, his 2900 Premier League minutes were the third most for an outfield player on City last year, behind only (suddenly) dependable center back Nicolás Otamendi and supernova offensive fulcrum, Kevin de Bruyne.
But Fernandinho’s minutes played are significant for another reason—he is now entering his Age 33 season and is still expected to provide strenuous outputs. Despite functioning at a high level for Guardiola’s team last year, Fernandinho is quite a ways beyond the age when a midfielder would be expected to slow down, and is inching ever closer to the point where players of his caliber look to bring their abilities to a less demanding competition level.
In fact, of the 200 leaders in outfield minutes played last season, only 10 were in their Age 33 or older season (defined as turning 33 before January 1). Of those, the only non-defenders were Darren Fletcher, Gareth Barry, Chris Brunt and Glenn Murray. Non-coincidentally, three of these players’ teams were relegated. Putting enormous burdens on midfield players of Fernandinho’s age just isn’t done. And yet City enter the season not only expecting Fernandinho to handle the lion’s share of the minutes playing at the 6, but also that he continue to produce at an elite level for a defensive midfielder. 33 may not seem too old, but in soccer midfielder terms, it’s ancient.
Statsbomb has already published on Andrés Iniesta’s age-related decline, and there’s no reason to expect Fernandinho to avoid Father Time’s march. So City is walking two tightropes—they are hoping he will be able to play many minutes and they are hoping his production will not tail off.
These are two huge bets to make on a player of Fernandinho’s age, and they are amplified by the lack of backup in the squad. The two closest players to Fernandinho’s skill set are Ilkay Gündogan and Fabian Delph, neither of whom fully replicates what Fernandinho brings to the table.
Delph was a nice story last year, but he doesn’t remotely approach Fernandinho’s impact as a passer on the ball. He played 7 fewer passes per 90 and was less enterprising with the ones he did play. Fernandinho was the fulcrum for City’s passing attack and the key catalyst for their ability to progress the ball from deep. His 12.3 deep progressions per 90 led not only the team, but also the entire league (among players with over 1000 minutes played). Delph is a tidy passer who can handle a high load in City’s system, but he’s unlikely to be able to match the same creativity as the Brazilian.
Despite playing a high number of passes and functioning in a similarly deep area to Fernandinho last year (while nominally playing as a leftback), Delph lagged behind in expected assist numbers, key passes, passes into the box, and long balls per 90. He contributed to deep progression numbers 30% less frequently, a nontrivial amount. And despite his more risk averse play, he lost the ball almost exactly as often as Fernandinho did.
Gündogan, conversely, can match Fernandinho for passing aptitude, but he lags behind in defense ability. Fernandinho put up a possession adjusted 4.7 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes . Gündogan played a key role in City’s impenetrable press, but he wasn’t the same force protecting the back 4; he only had 3 tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes.
If you combined the play of Delph and Gündogan, you would have a perfect replacement for Fernandinho ready-made. As is, no one on the team can replicate his combination of defensive prowess and passing assuredness and progressiveness.
If Fernandinho is largely the same player in 2018-19 as he was last year, City can occasionally rotate Delph or Gündogan into his place and save him some wear and tear as he ages. But if he gets injured and winds up missing a prolonged stretch of the season, or if his play regresses due to age, City will struggle to replace his poised play in the middle of the park.
While they have a larger margin for error than most defending champions do to retain their crown, any problems that arise around Fernandinho will be central to any scenario that sees them lose their crown. This is why their decision not to pursue further reinforcements after missing out on Jorginho is so curious.
It has been a confident start to the inchoate campaign, but Kevin de Bruyne’s set back has put City in a more precarious position than they would have liked. It further accentuates Fernandinho’s importance as well, since Gündogan is tasked with providing depth to both positions. A setback to Fernandinho could complicate team balance enough to open the door just enough for a rival team to mount a serious challenge to the title.
Still, City were historically good last year and remain favorites for both Premier League and Champions League honors. It’s more likely that they repeat as champions than that a chasing challenger dethrones them. If, on May 13, some other team tops the table, we’ll likely look back on Fernandinho as a critical cause.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association