Fernandinho arrived in England as an energetic, combative midfielder.
He’ll leave as one of the finest holding midfielders ever to grace the Premier League, due to his telepathic ability to locate teammates, obliterate opposition shin pads and evade the referee’s little black book.
Replacing the Brazilian may well be Pep Guardiola and the Man City board’s toughest recruitment conundrum, such is the balance and composure he brings to the side.
City have already done a fine job of future-proofing their squad.
Vincent Kompany has been gracefully phased out by John Stones and Aymeric Laporte at a cost of £104.5million. With an average age of 24, the duo can be City’s defensive bedrock for the foreseeable future.
David Silva is ageing like a fine hair transplant but, when he eventually decides to step aside, Bernardo Silva and Phil Foden are ready to pick up the slack with cute balls inside the full-back and velvety-soft touches.
Gabriel Jesus has been trying to wrestle the shirt off Sergio Aguero’s back ever since he arrived from Palmeiras as a 19-year-old without a single minute of European football under his belt.
So what about Fernandinho’s replacement?
Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Weigl, West Ham’s Declan Rice, Wolves’ Ruben Neves and Lyon’s Tanguy Ndombele have all been tipped to inherit the no.25 shirt, while Rodri’s performances for Villarreal and Atletico Madrid will have earned him plenty of admires on both sides of Manchester.
All noble suggestions and well within City’s budget. But what if Fernandinho’s replacement is already at the club?
Guardiola has history when it comes to polishing rough diamonds into world-class defensive midfielders.
He was the man who took Sergio Busquets out of obscurity at Barcelona B and developed him into one third of the best midfield unit ever to dominate European football.
Pep tried similar projects with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Gianluca Gaudino when he first arrived at Bayern Munich, although they proved less successful.
Douglas Luiz, who is currently on loan at La Liga outfit Girona, could be Guardiola’s next investment.
The 20-year-old has impressed in Spain of late, adding Casemiro and Toni Kroos to the list of midfielders he’s dominated when Girona beat Real Madrid 2-1.
Luiz was signed from Vasco da Gama in 2017 but is yet to play for City due to work permit issues. Pep was visibly frustrated when the Home Office denied Luiz a work permit, saying: “I accept the rules but it’s difficult to understand. They don’t know him.”
The Brazilian’s performance at the Bernabeu suggested Guardiola has every right to be annoyed.
Another intriguing option is Claudio Gomes. The Frenchman was signed from PSG in the summer, much to the annoyance of the Parisians.
Gomes impressed Guardiola during City’s pre-season tour, with the Spaniard hailing his training performances as ‘so, so good’.
The 18-year-old’s first-team opportunities have since been limited to four minutes against Fulham in the EFL Cup and a second of the Community Shield win over Chelsea, but that’s to be expected at his age and with the competition for places as fierce as it is at City.
Pep’s options aren’t limited to promoting a youngster from within.
At Bayern, Guardiola transformed Philipp Lahm from a full-back into a ruthlessly efficient midfielder. He did the reverse with Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko at City, utilising the midfielders as full-backs, so he’s shown willingness to experiment.
That raises the possibility of Guardiola moving Stones into midfield, or dropping Foden into a deeper role from which he can orchestrate and dictate the tempo.
Stones has already been deployed as a midfielder, although he struggled in the 3-2 loss to Crystal Palace back in December.
That was to be expected for a player who’s spent his entire career in defence. In Guardiola, Stones has one of the finest teachers in the game from whom to learn the art of midfield.
The likelihood, given what’s at stake, is that City will spend big on Fernandinho’s replacement next summer. Neves’ performances in the heart of Wolves’ midfield have made him a difficult prospect to ignore.
But nothing is every straightforward with Pep.
Don’t be surprised to see Nicolas Otamendi reinvented as the leading holding midfielder in the Premier League, or Aguero dropping deep to dictate from the Pirlo role.
Pep’s gonna Pep.
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