Manchester City has a Fernandinho problem.
The problem is that he’s good, difficult to replace, and just turned 34. This is the same problem the club faced at the end of the 2017-18 season, but with another year of mileage on his legs. There are worse problems to have, and this one is easily overstated. The incessantly cited correlation between Manchester City’s losses and the Brazilian’s absences elides how few losses are being discussed. Fernandinho played 504 fewer Premier League minutes in 2018-19, and the club’s points total declined by two to 98 — the second-greatest tally in league history. He was out injured for two of the club’s four losses; he was also out injured for half of the 14 consecutive wins that secured the title. Manchester City have been very good without Fernandinho, and even better with him.
Still, Fernandinho is 34 and won’t be able to provide 3,500+ quality minutes a year across all competitions forever. Ilkay Gundogan, his nominal backup, is too injury-prone to be counted on to replace all those minutes, he also is heading into the last year of his contract and hasn’t yet signed an extension. One could also argue that, for a team whose seasons are shaped by a handful of consequential matches, even a small drop-off without Fernandinho is particularly consequential. Manchester City, then, is back where it was last summer: An excellent team in need of a player who can excel at the base of its midfield.
During the last go around City were most prominently linked to Jorginho and Fred. They’re unlikely to be available. The two midfielders came to England, and spent last season playing for Chelsea and Manchester United, respectively. Their first years in the Premier League were…complicated? Still, as Manchester City keeps searching for a Fernandinho successor, it’s worth looking at the two who got away, if only to make sense of their seasons and City’s thinking about its midfield.
The appeal of Jorginho has never been a mystery: he’s an elite passer. Even in an often dysfunctional Chelsea team, he completed 90 percent of his passs and registered 10.54 deep progressions per 90 minutes. His passing was never really in doubt, mind you. Debates about Jorginho always come down to defense, which was…fine, maybe? He didn’t cover much ground, but on a possession-adjusted basis, Jorginho was able to rack up big defensive numbers at Chelsea. These stats are contingent. They don’t prove that Jorginho is a defensive star, or even net positive, so much as they suggest that, stationed in his deep zone on a team that dominates possession and gets little defensive work from its forward line, he can chip in with a fair volume of defensive actions. His gaffes and limitations are memorable, but his aggregate defensive contribution is sufficient. If there was a minimum defensive threshold for Fernandinho successors, he’s cleared it with his play at Chelsea.
Don’t look now, but Fernandinho’s appeal also has a lot to do with passing. It gets talked about less because he’s the closest thing Manchester City has to a defensive midfielder, but the Brazilian chipped in with 10.84 deep progressions per 90 minutes this season (down from an admittedly otherworldly 12.29 in 2017-18.) Fernandinho’s passing helped make up for the absence of Kevin de Bruyne and, while a touch less accurate, resembled Jorginho’s. Much like Jorginho’s defense, some of his attacking contributions are best understood as contingent. The deep midfielder on a team like Manchester City, which has the players and tactics to generate lots of chances, is almost sure to end up with a significant xG buildup tally. Fernandinho’s 1.07 xG buildup/90 tells us more about Manchester City than the player himself. A tumultuous year later, City’s pursuit of Jorginho still makes sense, despite the ire he now brings out in Chelsea fans.
Having failed to sign Jorginho, City spelled Fernandinho this season with a defensively limited midfielder who could replace the Brazilian’s passing. Ilkay Gundogan was good for a Fernandinho-esque 10.79 deep progressions per 90 minutes with 88% pass accuracy. However, he covered less ground and, when adjusting for possession, generated 1.17 tackles per 90 minutes compared to Fernandinho’s 3.11. Some of this difference likely stems from Gundogan having also been used in a variety of roles higher up the pitch, where he had fewer defensive responsibilities and could assist more chances. (This kind of usage helps to explain why Jorginho’s profile looks more like Fernandinho’s than the Brazilian’s nominal backup.) Manchester City, admittedly in the absence of other options, chose to replace Fernandinho’s passing this season and hope the defensive drop-off wouldn’t be too fatal.
This calculus appears to be at odds with City’s reported interest in Fred last summer. He went to that other Mancunian team, where he didn’t play that often and everything was a mess, all of which makes it hard to assess his season. Still, there’s little reason to believe a passer in the mold of Fernandinho, Gundogan, or Jorginho is there just waiting to be unlocked. This is not to say Fred’s useless; his 7.24 deep progressions per 90 minutes were well above average for a midfielder, his tackling was comparable to Fernandinho’s, and he excelled at pressing opponents. There’s no way to make “he did things” sound like it isn’t damning with faint praise, but that’s what Fred did. Without passing a value judgment on the different ways one can be a midfielder, one can conclude he’s a meaningfully different type of midfielder than the other Fernandinho replacements considered thus far.
Fred, however, is not that different from this summer’s mooted Fernandinho replacement: Rodri. Both players contributed 3.32 possession-adjusted tackles per 90 minutes last season and were good for a lot of pressing. The young Spaniard, with his 91 percent pass accuracy and 0.55 turnovers per 90, rarely gave the ball away. He also rarely did anything with it. Rodri completed 6.24 deep progressions per 90 minutes — about half of what Fernandinho put up in 2017-18 — and was below the levels of an average La Liga midfielder for successful dribbles and expected goals assisted. Some of this is likely a function Atlético Madrid’s peculiar tactics, where the midfield’s creative work is limited and then distributed across multiple players. (Rodri was the team’s leading tackler and fourth most prolific progressor of the ball.) Even if some of Rodri’s natural talents are being tamped down under Diego Simeone, it’s hard to know what kind of player Manchester City thinks he’ll become.
What is to be made of Manchester City’s midfield targets?
The range of Fernandinho replacements may be a concession to the dearth of players who can do so many things well. Before Pep Guardiola, City kept buying defensive midfielders to do Fernandinho-type things only to discover that they were comparably limited. Remember Fernando? Guardiola appears to have conceded that Fernandinho is a unicorn who will have to be replaced with more of a specialist and some tactical tweaks. With Gundogan and Jorginho (in theory), City could optimize for passing and trusting that tactics and goalscoring could cover for their defensive limitations. The interest in more defensive players, like Fred and Rodri, can be understood as the inverse of that approach: optimizing for defence and trusting that the lost progression can be found by deploying the team’s many passers differently.
This year’s interest in Rodri may also be understood in terms of age. Fred is now 26; Jorginho, 27; Gundogan, 28. They’re younger than Fernandinho, but solidly in their primes. Players of that age would extend City’s competitive window, but would also need to be replaced before long (Fernandinho is admittedly an exception to this rule). Passing may age well, but imagine Jorginho or Gundogan with even less mobility. Players in the age range are also likelier to be the finished product. Rodri, on the other hand, has time to develop into a different kind of player. It’s possible that City is betting that some Guardiola magic can unlock passing skills that were tamped down by Simeone. Add some more progressive passing to his defensive work, and suddenly you’re in the neighbourhood of a Fernandinho replacement.
These two theories are not mutually exclusive. Even if Rodri or someone like him ages into the Fernandinho role, tactical tweaks will probably be required to smooth over the transition. That a star midfielder and new tactics will be required to replace Fernandinho ultimately tells you more about the Brazilian than any of his possible successors.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association