Among a dazzling array of midfield options, it is the often unheralded Fernandinho who Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola has relied on most in another stunning start to the season for the Premier League champions.
The Brazilian will face old club Shakhtar Donetsk on Wednesday as City seek to make amends from the only blip of their campaign so far, a shock 2-1 defeat to Lyon in their last Champions League home game.
If any reminder was needed over Guardiola’s influence, he was banned from the touchline that night.
Since his return, City have won nine and drawn one, a 0-0 stalemate away to Liverpool, of their last 10 games, scoring 29 goals and conceding just two in the process.
Although fulsome in his praise of the maturing centre-back pairing Aymeric Laporte and John Stones, Guardiola’s defensive philosophy is dependent on a team effort to keep the ball as far away from City’s goal as possible.
“Always we try to convince our players as far away the ball is from our goal, we are safe. It’s much, much better. The moment the ball is around our box, anything can happen,” said Guardiola this week.
“In 10 years I was always concerned, always focused, maybe more than any other thing, in defending well.
“The only difference is we do it far away from our goal.”
Central to that philosophy is Fernandinho’s ability to not just read the game and quickly regain possession, but also use the ball soundly as a springboard to City’s attack.
“There is always a relation. When you attack good, you defend well. When you defend well and are solid, you attack better,” added Guardiola.
‘Luckiest manager in the world’
Despite turning 33 earlier this year, Fernandinho has started all of City’s 14 Premier and Champions League matches this season, while the more creative talents of David Silva, Leroy Sane, Bernardo Silva and Raheem Sterling have had to live with Guardiola’s rotation policy.
“Ferna would make any manager the happiest or luckiest in the world,” said Guardiola ahead of City’s 3-0 win in the Ukraine against Shakhtar two weeks ago.
“He is a joy to have as a player – he is very special. He will always be a special player for me to work alongside.”
Guardiola knows very well the dual demands of Fernandinho’s role having won the European Cup in his days as a player in the same position for Barcelona.
Fernandinho received arguably the highest praise from his manager when he claimed even Guardiola the player couldn’t force his way into the current City juggernaut given his form.
So far City’s failure to land Jorginho, who instead choose to follow Maurizio Sarri in the move from Napoli to Chelsea in July, to share the burden as the midfield anchor hasn’t proved costly.
Instead, Guardiola’s men show no sign of a slip in standards from their record 100-point Premier League campaign last season, as evidenced by a 6-1 annihilation of Southampton on Sunday.
It is the Champions League that remains the holy grail for City’s Abu Dhabi owners, though, and despite the Lyon stumble, another victory against Shakhtar will put the English champions well on course to make the last 16 for a sixth straight season.