Neil Humphreys: Fernandinho to the fore
Man City manager Guardiola set to turn to Brazilian veteran utility man to shore up leaky backline
Manchester City's central defence looks a like a press conference with Boris Johnson and a foreign leader. It's awkward and one of the guys doesn't show up.
|SHAKHTAR DONETSK||MAN CITY|
John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi are turning into a comedy duo with two straight men. The more they play it straight, the more their audience laughs.
Only Pep Guardiola isn't giggling.
With a trip to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League tomorrow morning (Singapore time), he needs another slapstick routine from his centre-backs like he needs another month added to Aymeric Laporte's recovery from a knee injury.
The champions aren't in crisis. Their defeat at Norwich was only City's first in the league in eight months, but they are struggling with strained relations between Stones and Otamendi.
If Guardiola wants to avoid a close shave in Donetsk, he should consider Fernandinho.
At 34, the Brazil midfielder doesn't feature in Guardiola's long-term planning, but the City manager has lost one ageing stalwart and can't afford to neglect another.
Vincent Kompany is actually a year younger than his former teammate, but the Belgian's departure left a vacuum that the Brazilian can fill now.
The obvious incompatibility between Stones and Otamendi pushes City towards a crossroads. And the difference between a crossroads and a crisis may be the number of unforced errors at the back.
After the Norwich defeat, Guardiola insisted that Stones and Otamendi had established his reputation in England, winning him silverware and reinforcing his credibility in the English Premier League.
The words were sincere, but he was contradicted by his own selections. Since Laporte's arrival in January 2018, Stones and Otamendi have played as a pair only three times in the EPL.
Guardiola admires Otamendi's tenacity in a tackle and Stones' passing range, just not together. Rather than cover for the other man's deficiencies, the defenders amplify their weaknesses.
As the Norwich loss demonstrated, Stones still doesn't mark or challenge as effectively as an elite centre-back.
And Otamendi remains painfully uncomfortable playing from the back. His touches seem less assured than a gangly teenager trying to break-dance. The moves rarely come off.
Indeed the statistics confirm the strengths and weaknesses of both men.
Since the start of last season, Otamendi has managed the most tackles (1.2) and interceptions per game (1.5). Stones made the least (0.8 and 0.6).
But Otamendi ranked bottom when it came to successful passes per game (66.2). Not surprisingly, Laporte topped that list (78.7) and Stones was the best of the rest with 68.5 passes.
Stones doesn't cover enough when his wing-backs are caught up field and Otamendi doesn't execute Guardiola's passing plan with the panache required. But Fernandinho does both. Tackling and distribution are his stock in trade.
Guardiola enjoys a radical personnel tweak every now and then, swopping players around in a sort of coaching showboating.
At Barcelona, he turned one of the finest holding midfielders of his generation, Javier Mascherano, into one of his key centre-backs. At Bayern Munich, he repeated the switch with Javi Martinez. With Fernandinho, he's completed a hat-trick.
Guardiola has long championed Fernandinho's adaptability, especially after the Brazilian slotted into the back four so effortlessly against Brighton, following Laporte's injury.
More importantly, Fernandinho brings leadership.
After Kompany's departure and Laporte's injury, City's central defenders have displayed the authority of headless chickens in a hurricane: directionless, leaderless and often hopeless.
It's no coincidence that Kompany and Laporte had the most successful combination in the last 18 months. They started 11 games together and ended up with the highest win ratio (91 per cent).
Their lost fortitude can be found in Fernandinho.
Of course, Guardiola must weigh up the risks of dropping one of his established centre-backs. The Catalan doesn't really do sentimentality. He does silverware, via a quiet, understated ruthlessness towards erratic stars.
Otamendi and Stones' fragile partnership is already on borrowed time. Another disaster in Donetsk would almost certainly be the last straw.
A Brazilian could earn the pair a reprieve.
Fernandinho has built his remarkable career on timely interventions. He needs to make another one now.
- Club Brugge v Galatasaray
- Paris St Germain v Real Madrid
- Olympiakos v Tottenham Hotspur
- Bayern Munich v Red Star Belgrade
- Shakhtar Donetsk v Manchester City
- Dinamo Zagreb v Atalanta
- Atletico Madrid v Juventus
- Bayer Leverkusen v Lokomotiv Moscow