City paying price for not replicating Fernandinho's bite
Pep Guardiola's failure to find a credible back-up for Fernandinho despite a £542.9m (€600m) spend on players since taking over as Manchester City manager in 2016 is receiving heightened scrutiny.
City have lost three times in four league games and significantly Fernandinho's thigh problem forced him to miss the losses to Crystal Palace and Leicester. The player Guardiola believes could operate in any outfield position is in contention for today's trip to Southampton but he may not start.
City's slump has allowed Liverpool to take advantage at the top of the Premier League and without Fernandinho the fear is Guardiola's side may slip further behind. City are already 11 points worse off than at the season's midpoint a year ago.
When Sheikh Mansour bought the club a decade ago the plan was for City to acquire two elite performers for each position. So for Guardiola to oversee a half-a-billion-pound splurge on players and end up with no serious competition for Fernandinho is a puzzle.
The manager's assessment that the Brazilian is indispensable is supported by City's results with and without the midfielder in the starting XI under Guardiola. Of the 14 league outings for which Fernandinho has been absent, City have won nine. In 81 matches with him, City have recorded 60 victories. After the defeat to Leicester Guardiola said: "We don't have this player like Fernandinho in this position, we have to think about it and solve it."
In October, the manager fiercely defended Fernandinho when Gary Neville pointed on Sky to how many fouls he commits, and last month the player indicated how trusted he feels: "The responsibility on me is big."
All of which underlines his importance to the team (he was in the side for the 2-0 loss at Chelsea on December 8 but was not fully fit and ended that match in discomfort).
At the start of the month Guardiola voiced concern at the risk to Fernandinho by saying it would "kill" him for next season if he continued to start every league outing, adding further weight to the question: why did City not follow through in the summer with acquiring a back-up for a player who turns 34 in May?
Interest was shown in Fred but when he joined Manchester United in June, Guardiola turned to Jorginho. City believed a deal was in place for the then Napoli midfielder only for him to follow Maurizio Sarri to Chelsea.
Back then, City's stance was that they would not pursue another defensive midfielder, yet with Yaya Touré also departing they were left doubly exposed. It made the £60m (€66m) purchase of Riyad Mahrez seem particularly misguided. With Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sané, Bernardo Silva, Gabriel Jesus and Phil Foden already in the ranks, Mahrez appears a luxury given City's current predicament.
Yet it is understood the club are adamant the defeats by Palace and Leicester and Fernandinho's contributing absence will not lead to a kneejerk reversal of the decision to avoid spending in the January window.
Since Fernandinho arrived in the summer of 2013, the club have added only two specialist back-ups: Fernando, from Porto in June 2014, and Fabian Delph, from Villa in July 2015, with the former departing in August 2017 and the latter not trusted for the role by Guardiola.
Douglas Luiz was also recruited two summers ago but remains on loan at Girona because of work-permit problems.
It is a further surprise that Guardiola has not identified an able second-choice from within City's squad, especially given his ability to improve and recast those under his management. Delph - suspended for the game at Southampton - would seem a prime candidate: a central midfielder rated good enough to play in the position for England by Gareth Southgate, and whose muck-and-nettles game is akin to Fernandinho's. Delph has become Benjamin Mendy's stand-in at left-back but he is no natural fit there, as his red card at Leicester for a two-footed lunge at Ricardo Pereira underlined. Ilkay Gündogan was chosen for the position against the Foxes but, while a silkier operator, he lacks the Englishman's bite.
It is an attribute Fernandinho has in abundance and which City miss sorely when he is unavailable. One of his finest displays this season came in his last match - the 3-1 win over Everton at the Etihad Stadium on December 15 - when his muscularity wrested control of a contest City might have lost.
That afternoon he did what he so often does for the team: married an ability to pass and create with the awareness to anticipate and destroy. City concede in excess of 50 per cent more goals when he does not start. He is the complete midfielder. John Stones has been tried but so far has not been a success. The centre-back was given 16 minutes as a replacement for Fernandinho in September's 5-0 win at Cardiff City before playing all of the Palace loss. Despite City having no plans to enter the market next month one potential target might be Lyon's Tanguy Ndombele, who impressed in the Champions League against them.
Guardiola has other personnel problems as he takes City to Southampton for a match he must win. Mendy is once again out injured, until the end of January, but the jury remains out regarding his temperament - and with no obvious backup, left-back is another weak link. On the other flank, Kyle Walker's composure is a concern, as evidenced by him conceding what proved to be Palace's winning penalty. He was criticised by Guardiola and dropped for the Leicester loss.
Yet it is the failure to fill Fernandinho's boots that has left Guardiola most vulnerable. Even with the Brazilian's return, the prospect of a successful title defence may have slipped away.
Southampton v Manchester City
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