Mas­ter of Dark Arts

Fer­nand­inho pre­pares to down Reds

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - James Ducker NORTH­ERN FOOT­BALL COR­RE­SPON­DENT

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.

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