In a season when any one of nine or 10 Manchester City players could reasonably lay claim to the club’s Player of the Year nomination, one vital player above all others sails below the radar, as he has been doing since his arrival in England five years ago.
Fernandinho probably first came to mass attention in the UK on scoring Shakhtar’s equaliser at White Hart Lane in the UEFA Cup in February 2009. That 2008-09 season was already his fourth in the Ukraine after a £7 million transfer from his first club, Atletico Paranaense, in 2005.
He would go on to play nearly 300 games for the Ukrainian champions, winning six league titles and four domestic cups, as well as being voted the league’s Player of the Year in 2008.
As a mainstay in a sizeable colony of Brazilians at the club, he soon became an obvious target for the big guns of Europe and, when City came calling in the summer of 2013, it proved too much of a temptation. Revealing a little of what makes him tick, the player even waived as much as £4m in assorted payments that were owed to him as bonuses by Shakhtar to ensure he could move to the Premier League unhindered that summer.
Arriving before new manager Manuel Pellegrini had been formally installed at the Etihad, the deep-lying midfielder took his place alongside Jesus Navas as the Chilean’s earliest signing.
A tame attempt at retaining their inaugural Premier League title under Roberto Mancini had led to the Italian’s demise at the end of the previous season (2012-13). The FA Cup final — a grim, effort-free display in losing to Roberto Martinez’s Wigan Athletic — had also served to highlight a number of defensive problems that City had developed during the Italian’s four-season stint at the helm.
Midfield, where the skills of David Silva and the burgeoning power of Yaya Toure had always taken precedence, was also the home to two slow-moving, essentially defensive players in Gareth Barry and Javi Garcia, and it was Pellegrini’s impression that this area needed to be endowed with more vigour, more energy and more thrust.
In the shape of the pencil-thin Brazilian, City got the lot in one trim package. Involved in the move that set up David Silva for the opening City goal of the season at home to Newcastle, Fernandinho’s debut told of much that was to come. Prowling the central area in front of defenders Vincent Kompany and Joleon Lescott, he completely nullified the threat posed by Newcastle’s talented playmaker Hatem Ben Arfa and could be seen surging forward to link with Silva and Toure as well as Sergio Aguero and Edin Dzeko, farther up the field.
It was an auspicious start for both the midfielder and for his club. City would go on to lift the League Cup and the Premier League in an initial Pellegrini season decorated with goals and flowing football. It was arguably the balance given to the side by the Brazilian that allowed such cavalier football to be nurtured.
Man City had found a player that had the energy, vision and passing range to fill a variety of roles all at the same time. The Premier League, which had grown up on a solid diet of defensive midfielders that sat tight and played safe, had seen the role steadily develop shape and meaning. Yet here was something slightly different again.
In his seminal book The Mixer, football writer Michael Cox devotes an entire chapter to the emergence of Claude Makelele at Chelsea in the first Jose Mourinho era at Stamford Bridge. Having arrived from Real Madrid, Makelele invented a new role in the Portuguese’s Chelsea side that eventually became known as the Makelele Role, so unique was it deemed to be.
The role, essentially defensive in its duties but critical in allowing free rein to other more creatively influential performers, has changed again in modern times. City’s penchant for playing a 4-1-4-1 formation that can morph rapidly into a 4-3-3 has seen the Brazilian in a pivotal role linking defence and attack, guarding his back line and dispatching cutting passes to the front and to the two wings.
Fernandinho’s hidden skills of delaying opposition counterattacks with subtle blocking manoeuvres — sometimes referred to as “fouls” — has also become an integral part of City’s midfield solidity. His ability to arrive at the edge of the box and either find the net or scoop a telling pass to someone who can do the same, has made his contribution in this stunning City side absolutely unique.
In his five years in Manchester, Fernandinho has played at least 43 times each season. Adding vigour, dynamism and forward thrust to the defensive awareness of the Makelele role, he has produced a modern take on an old classic. With rumours linking City to Napoli’s Brazilian midfielder Jorginho, he may soon have competition, but few are the City fans who expect any newcomer to fill the role in a more accomplished manner than Fernandinho has over the past five years.
Simon is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.