Manchester City were annoyed that they were beaten to the punch to sign Jorginho from Napoli. Very annoyed. Pep Guardiola was well aware he needed reinforcements in midfield; Fernandinho turned 33 in May and shoulders a huge burden within the Catalan’s intricate tactical system.
The Brazilian has missed both of City’s last two matches, both of which were lost. John Stones was pushed into the base of midfield as Crystal Palace won 3-2 at the Etihad, while Ilkay Gundogan played there during that 2-1 Boxing Day defeat at Leicester. Neither flourished.
As Jorginho’s performances for Chelsea have shown, he is not a defensive midfielder, but finding no alternative to Fernandinho while paying £60m for the undoubted but superfluous talents of Riyad Mahrez is beginning to look like a severe transfer market misstep. Leaders Liverpool brought Naby Keita, Xherdan Shaqiri and Fabinho into their midfield, the latter lately a slow-burning success.
Guardiola, whose advanced-level stratagems were the star of the “All Or Nothing” box-set series, has had his team picked apart three times in four Premier League matches. The players, a group pushed to the limits last season before most of them headed to the World Cup, cannot emulate the intensity of their manager. And unlike last season, where Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United had settled for second before the leaves had fallen from the autumnal trees, City are being hunted down by rivals who have self-belief and power.
Should their run of form continue, they are in danger of repeating the fade of Guardiola’s first season in charge, where the wheels came off once an unbeaten run came to an end and City were unable to get back into the race. And that would place Guardiola’s reputation as the best coach in the world, the dream ticket that Abu Dhabi were prepared to pay the highest petrodollars for, in danger. Last season was a breeze.
City were so far ahead that a lack of transfer activity was seen as a show of their unsurpassable strength. How to improve on perfection? In the midst of a slump during the heaviest schedule of the season, those decisions closely resemble complacency.
“We have to try to find the solutions,” said Guardiola at Leicester. “Fernandinho is not able to play, he is injured, we have to overcome it.”
No date has been set for a return. City have Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva, the Premier League’s prime creative talents. They also have Sergio Aguero, the deadliest striker of the last decade. But they are finding out that Fernandinho is their one irreplaceable player. Without his discipline in midfield, a team that was on course to break the records set in last season’s runaway triumph has fallen seven points behind Liverpool. And City are third in a two-horse race behind Tottenham.
That City would breeze to the title was previously the most locked-down narrative of the 2018-19 season. The rest would be fighting for place positions, and it was felt Liverpool’s best chance of glory lay in the Champions League. But now, as the season turns for home at its halfway point of 19 games played, it is Liverpool who are on course for 100 points, and have the same goal difference of +36 as a previously rampant City.
And Liverpool have conceded just seven goals all season while City, despite a goals-against column of just 15, have not kept a clean sheet for nine matches; the decline had set in before Fernandinho pulled up lame. That 2-0 loss at Chelsea on December 8 now has the look of a potentially defining moment in the season. With Jorginho given as little ball as he has enjoyed all season, a trap was laid for City as pressure was soaked up and N’Golo Kante’s opening goal came after a long David Luiz pass from defence. It had been proved that City can be ‘got at’.
Beyond Fernandinho, there are further mitigating circumstances for a disastrous December, including spectacular goals scored by Kante, Andros Townsend and Ricardo Pereira. Injuries have taken heavy toll with De Bruyne only just returned from knee and then ankle problems, Silva suffering niggles, Aguero only just back from a lengthy absence and Benjamin Mendy again succumbed to a knee injury.
The rest of City’s squad has not stepped up.
Fabian Delph, Guardiola’s utility man, had a desperate Boxing Day at Leicester, failing to cover off his left-back position for Marc Albrighton’s equaliser and then being red-carded for.a foul on Ricardo Pereira. Gundogan, a central midfielder, cannot shield defences.
And with resurgent Southampton on December 30 and Liverpool to visit the Etihad on January 2, City badly need to rediscover their vigour and find a solution to the Fernandinho problem.