It has been a miserable festive period for Manchester City.
The Premier League champions have lost consecutive games to Crystal Palace and Leicester, and have now lost three of their last four.
Pep Guardiola’s side were top of the table when they visited Stamford Bridge on December 8th, but now find themselves seven points adrift of league leaders Liverpool.
It is no coincidence that one of City’s key – and underrated – performers has missed the last two matches, which both ended in shock defeats.
Fernandinho has been integral to the Manchester club’s success in recent years.
The Brazilian midfielder has missed the last two matches through injury, and he is the one player that City have no replacement for.
Despite the enviable wealth of talent available to Guardiola, there is no player who can be deployed as a defensive midfielder to such effect.
John Stones was moved up to the base of midfield against Crystal Palace, but the experiment failed to pay off. The Eagles stunned City at the Etihad, and came out on top in a thrilling 3-2 encounter in Manchester.
Ikay Gundogan was trialled in the position in yesterday’s 2-1 defeat to Leicester, and while the German is a superb midfielder, but he is far more comfortable in a box-to-box or more attacking role.
“Fernandinho is not available to play so we have to overcome,” Pep said after yesterday’s defeat to the Foxes.
“Gundogan played good, he was good with the ball. We don’t have this player like Fernandinho in this position, we have to think about it and solve it.”
Fabian Delph – who has been struggling for form – could be another player who could potentially deputize in the position, but the England international is now suspended after yesterday’s straight red card.
Worryingly for City, Fernandinho remains a doubt for the upcoming trip to Southampton and the crucial visit of Liverpool to the Etihad.
City’s struggles without the 33-year-old have highlighted the importance of the only defensive midfield position in Guardiola’s team, and the quality of the player who has been absent from the role in the last two matches.
While City coped admirably with the lengthy absence of Kevin De Bruyne this season, they have struggled without Fernandinho in recent weeks.
The Brazil international has been excellent for City since joining the club from Shaktar Donetsk in 2013, and has been a key player under Pep.
Fernandinho has missed just 27 games during the Spanish manager’s tenure, making 115 appearances in total under Guardiola.
City have won 71.3% of those 115 games with their midfield enforcer in the team, as opposed to just 59.3% without him.
The English champions have conceded 0.9 goals per game with Fernandinho in the team, with a slightly higher ratio of one goal in each game without the 33-year-old.
City also average more goals per game (2.5) with him than without him (1.9).
Despite his advancing age (Guardiola admitted earlier this season that Fernandinho is no longer able to play every single match) Fernandinho’s influence hasn’t waned.
He has been typically effective this season, and was even nominated for the Premier League Player of the Month award in October.
“He recovers many balls for his team and that makes him a very complete player,” former City striker Alvaro Negredo told Goal in late October.
“I think that replacing him will be a real problem for the club.”
The Brazilian doesn’t always get the plaudits his performances merit, and his ability on the ball is sometimes underrated.
“I think Fernandinho, right now, is one of the three best holding midfielders in the world,” Pep declared last year.
While he allows his midfield partners more attacking freedom, he also offers great support to City’s full backs.
This has perhaps been the most notable issue in his absence.
Fabian Delph has struggled hugely at left back in the last two games, and Kyle Walker also endured a torrid afternoon against Palace.
Walker could have done better Jeffrey Schlupp’s opener, and the English full back also conceded a rash penalty for Palace’s third.
Delph was caught out for Leicester’s equalizer, and his rash tackle late in the game has resulted in a three match suspension.
Many have claimed in recent days that Delph has been exposed as an unnatural left back, but the lack of protection from a clever covering midfielder is also playing a part.
The good news for City is that Fernandinho’s injury is a minor one, and the two-time Premier League winner could even return for the clash with Liverpool.
However, at 33, Fernandinho is in the twilight of his career.
His absence has exposed City’s lack of depth in a pivotal position, and it is no surprise that the Manchester club have been linked with several exciting midfield prospects.
Ajax’s Frenkie De Jong – who has earned early comparisons to Johann Cruyff – has been linked with City along with a host of other top European clubs, and Lyon’s 21-year-old central midfielder Tanguy Ndombele has also been linked in recent weeks.
While Fernandinho’s absence is a temporary problem, City will eventually need a permanent solution to the issue.