When Pep Guardiola was first announced at Manchester City, questions about Fernandinho and his place in the squad started immediately. He was thought of as a midfield destroyer, too brutal and violent for Pep’s slick passing game. However, after two-and-a-half years at the Etihad, there is no doubt about Fernandinho and his importance to the Cityzens. Will his return be enough for Manchester City to topple an unbeaten Liverpool, though?
It’s All About Fernandinho
It was like a different team stepped out on the field in the League Cup against Leicester, then again against Crystal Palace and Leicester in the Premier League; they looked lost. It was the same controlled, possession-based side that had been dominating the Premier League for 18 months, only it was missing the one irreplaceable man.
Part of what has made Manchester City so strong is their ability to rotate and still dominate Premier League games. Kevin De Bruyne, Benjamin Mendy, Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus have all missed time this season, and City have gone on without a blip. However, after Fernandinho missed three straight games, it felt like Manchester City’s title chance had crumbled in his absence.
In those three games against Leicester twice and Crystal Palace, Manchester City went winless with two losses. It wasn’t like they were thoroughly outplayed in any of these games either. They were caught out in quick succession; a five-minute stretch where their concentration wained and it cost them.
When that happens and your opponent is decisive, you get caught. Palace caught them beautifully in a five minute stretch in the first half. Leicester hit back right after they had conceded the opener. Incidentally, in both Premier League games without Fernandinho, these spells came right after they had scored the opener.
What It Means
If there is a side that is best at catching teams when they have a bad spell, its Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp’s side excel at sensing the right moment to strike. They are excellent at knowing when they have an opponent on their back foot, just like they knew against City in their Champions League tie last April.
Manchester City need Fernandinho at his best to stave off this problem against Liverpool on Thursday. Liverpool are going to come out and high press City straight from kick-off; it’s Klopp’s style anyway. So without Fernandinho’s calm play at the base of the midfield, City would have been in for an intense night.
With Fernandinho, they will have much more control in possession playing out of the back, but it will not mean they are going to create a ton of chances. Liverpool are incredibly stout at the back for one, but the possession could be used to hide another issue facing Pep Guardiola’s side.
The Left-Back Issue
The performances of the left-backs has been, in no other words, awful. Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko have not played well in the absence of Benjamin Mendy. The Frenchman has been out since the Manchester United game and City have missed him greatly. It was Zinchenko’s error that led to the only goal for Southampton at the weekend.
It’s not like Fabian Delph has done any better, though. He will miss the Liverpool game because of a red card picked up in the game against Leicester on Boxing Day. So, barring some Pep wizardry, Oleksandr Zinchenko will be starting at left-back on Thursday. That’s what makes this game all about Fernandinho because Liverpool are going to go at Zinchenko all night.
With Mohamed Salah and likely Xherdan Shaqiri as well, it’s their attacking strong suit. Everyone knows why Salah is dangerous, but Shaqiri has been playing well in addition. His disdain for Pep and renowned big-game heroics will mean he’s at his best but, with them at their best, there is still more to worry about against Liverpool.
The way their midfielders and full-backs join the attack is phenomenal. They have a perfect understanding of when to push forward or when to stay back. When Trent Alexander-Arnold overlaps from right-back, Jordan Henderson slides back perfectly into the vacated space, and vice-versa.
Even veteran defenders have a hard time coping with that type of calculated movement, and Zinchenko is 22-year-old midfielder playing left-back, which brings it back to Fernandinho. He is going to have to cover Zinchenko a lot on Thursday. Understanding when and how to cover for the young Ukranian will be key to a City victory.
It really does feel like all the momentum going into this game is behind Liverpool, but City should not be counted out. They are at home, a big difference from playing at Anfield under these circumstances. Fernandinho is back and going to play, so is David Silva, and Pep said that we will have to wait and see on whether or not Kevin De Bruyne can play.
If City get a good performance from Zinchenko and can keep Salah and Shaqiri under wraps, they will win the game. Its tough to see Liverpool breaking down City’s defence without one of those two being heavily involved but, if they get loose, it won’t matter that this preview is about Fernandinhho; Liverpool will just be too good.