Master of Dark Arts
Fernandinho prepares to down Reds
Manchester City’s “Smiling Assassin” is laughing at the nickname recently ascribed to him by some of the pundits who consider him – with more than a degree of admiration, it must be said – Pep Guardiola’s tactical fouler in chief. “Why?” asks an amused Fernandinho, clearly playing to the crowd. “I am a nice guy. Look, I have heard what has been said, but most of the time, I recover the ball without making a foul. I smile because I am a happy guy.”
Jose Mourinho certainly had Fernandinho uppermost in his mind when the Manchester United manager was the first publicly to raise the subject of City’s so-called tactical fouling before last season’s derby at Old Trafford, and little is likely to have changed as the Portuguese prepares to take his side to the Etihad today.
Not very convincingly, Guardiola has denied instructing his players to commit fouls in instances where his team have failed to retrieve possession within that hallowed five-second rule of his.
Fernandinho does little to dispel the belief that Guardiola is happy for his players to use fair means or foul to kill opposition counter-attacks and give his side time to regroup.
“Sometimes, you get players who are faster than you or who can trick you with some skill,” the Brazilian says. “Sometimes, you make the foul, but I would say that in football contact is normal, especially in England.
“The important thing to understand, from my point of view, is if the opponents break our lines and are attacking our box, something has gone wrong and it is me who has to fix it. Fouls in football are normal. You have to do it sometimes.”
Fernandinho has become a master of the dark arts: a tug of the shirt here, a trip there, all executed with a smile and an arm around an opponent or referee – hence the “Smiling Assassin” label – but there is arguably no one more important to Guardiola’s system than this talented, intelligent, versatile Brazilian.
He is so energetic it is hard to believe he will be 34 in May, but given that the Premier League champions have no like-for-like replacement, Guardiola’s concern about the impact an injury to Fernandinho would have and his desperation to sign someone else with his unique skill set, is understandable.
Guardiola’s admiration for Fernandinho was forged from the outset when he said in one of his first press conferences that the midfielder could play in 10 positions, but even the player concedes there has been a steep learning curve under the Catalan.
“When you are a father, when you talk to your son or your daughter for the first time, they don’t understand you,” Fernandinho explains. “Of course, you have patience, and you keep talking to them, and eventually they do understand.
“You tell them, ‘You have to do this, you cannot do this’, and as they grow, they start to get it. They are no longer babies. They are growing up. That is what it is like with Pep. You grow up, you work, and now we understand the things he wants much better.
“In the first season, it took him more time to make us understand his ideas. Some players didn’t understand immediately what he wanted. Everyone was learning. Now, it only takes a gesture from him and we understand. It has become easier.”
Fernandinho considers himself a cog – albeit a crucial one – in a well-oiled machine that United, even after a morale-boosting victory away to Juventus in the Champions League, will have a tough time trying to stop.
United remain the only side to have beaten City at the Etihad in the league since Chelsea in December 2016, having survived an onslaught to come from two goals down to win 3-2 in April and delay their rivals’ title celebrations. It sparked some angry scenes in the City dressing room, but Fernandinho denies they believed the job was done at half-time.
“We did not treat it like a party,” he says. “We ask ourselves why we missed the opportunity to win the title against them. The answer is that we missed a lot of goal chances, we had a lack of concentration in the set-pieces and didn’t cover in the best way when they had the ball. Pep was angry, everyone was angry, very angry.”
It was not enough to prevent Guardiola’s men from running up an unprecedented century of points, and if anything, City look even more menacing, more in tune with each other this term.
United will face a team that have scored six goals in each of their past two outings and 50 competitive goals already this season. The speed and precision of the interplay, the understanding of each other’s roles and the sheer relentlessness of their football takes the breath away at times.
“It’s a synchronisation, it has to be precise,” Fernandinho says. “Everyone knows their role and what they have to do on the pitch. For example, if you are playing against a team with very fast wingers, we cannot go forward without someone – me – covering those players if the full-backs [Benjamin] Mendy and [Kyle] Walker have joined the attack.”
Fernandinho says he has benefited considerably from video analysis sessions with Guardiola’s assistant, Mikel Arteta, in which they talk through specific movements, moments and actions. Listening to him speak so eloquently about his role, it is little wonder he executes it so well.
“The responsibility on me is big, but I feel great because I know how important I am for the team,” he says. “In my country, they used to call players in my position a defensive midfielder, but it is not defensive. I try to win the ball high up the pitch to start attacks, but it isn’t just me.
“When the other team has the ball, we are all under instruction to win it back. We defend with 10 outfield players. The key is to be compact going both ways, attacking and defending. This is how to keep control.”
And Fernandino is fundamental to attaining it.