Smiling assassin happy to be the first line of defence
Pep Guardiola the manager paid Fernandinho a heartfelt compliment a couple of weeks ago, when he suggested Guardiola the player might find it difficult to break into the present Manchester City team.
Plenty of people on City's books know the feeling but Fernandinho plays in the withdrawn midfield position where Guardiola used to operate and, at a time when the manager occasionally leaves out such stellar talents as Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Raheem Sterling, the Brazilian's appearance record speaks for itself.
No City player has started more games this season: though the cast around him rotates, Fernandinho has yet to miss a Premier or Champions League fixture.
"The responsibility on me is big!" Fernandinho says with a laugh, as he prepares for the first Manchester derby of the season, at the Etihad this afternoon. "But I feel great, because I know how important I am for the team. I have conversations with Pep all the time about my role, and also with [assistant coach] Mikel Arteta because he knows the position, too. They try to correct me if something goes wrong and I always listen, because even at my age you can still improve both in games and in training sessions."
Fernandinho has been so effective for City in the past five years it is easy to forget he is 33. He only came to England at the age of 28, after eight seasons with Shakhtar Donetsk and, if a sizeable portion of his career was spent in the relative obscurity of the Ukrainian league, it would be hard to argue he has not ended up giving his best years to City.
"Pep has made me understand the game more," he says. "Not just how I play but also how the team has to play, because I am just a component. Pep and his staff work very hard, not just on the training pitch but also with the analysis of opponents, and now, of course, we understand more how he wants to play. It is not like the first season when he arrived when it took him more time to make us understand his ideas, now we can grasp the things he wants much better.
"In that first year some players didn't pick it up immediately, everyone was still learning about what he wanted. Now it only takes a gesture from him and we understand. It has become easier, we can appreciate what he wants much better."
Guardiola's influence certainly seems to be bringing the best from the remarkably consistent Fernandinho, though there have been suggestions this season - hotly denied by both parties - that the manager instructs certain players to break up the play with tactical fouls when the opposition are in a position to launch a swift counterattack.
Fernandinho in particular has been shown to be adept at getting away with petty offences, largely because he looks so cheerful all the time. What does he think about being called the smiling assassin? "I am a nice guy!" he says with a laugh. "I smile because I am happy! I have heard what has been said but most of the time I recover the ball without making a foul. It is my job to fix things in the middle of the pitch, and sometimes you get players who are faster than you or can trick you with a bit of skill and sometimes you make a foul. In football, contact is normal, especially in England. If the opponents break our lines and they are attacking our box something has gone wrong and it is me who has to fix it, I'm the defensive midfielder.
"But really the idea is for the whole team to defend, not just me. When the other team has the ball we are all under instruction to win it back as soon as possible. Everyone, including the strikers and wingers, has to press high. That is how we try to keep control."
City's task in today's derby seemed relatively straightforward until a hitherto disjointed Manchester United posted their most impressive result of the season in Turin on Wednesday. Fernandinho and his team-mates will be on their guard, though after what happened in April's Etihad encounter no one is likely to underestimate José Mourinho and his players. City were all set to clinch the title with victory against their neighbours and rivals - legend has it celebratory T-shirts had already been printed to underline the point - yet United managed to put the coronation on hold by coming back from a 2-0 interval deficit to score three second-half goals.
"It was a unique game and it hurt," Fernandinho says. "We had the chance to win the title against our biggest opponent and we missed it, but we did not treat the game like a party. We asked ourselves why we failed to take the opportunity to win the title and the answer was that we scored two goals but missed a lot of chances to score more.
"Pep was angry, very angry, but we cannot think about that now, everyone should be 100 per cent concentrated on winning the game.
"United are a very dangerous team. They have quality players who can make a difference in big games. We have to be very, very careful."
Sunday Indo Sport