The bruising elegance of Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho, Manchester City’s enforcers who broke Everton
Given Manchester City’s persistent wonder with the ball at feet, a bell-and-whistles football team, it is easy to overlook at how damn good they are without the ball. It is a good time of year for Jesus celebrations, and Gabriel’s first league goals in four months took the headlines. Leroy Sane’s redemption also continued apace with two more assists. But if Sane and Jesus are the duck serenely gliding across the Manchester City lake, Ilkay Gundogan and Fernandinho are the legs kicking beneath the water’s surface.
It isn’t often that you see Fernandinho and Gundogan in combination. The pair were starting together in the league for only the third time since September, and usually operate in the same role and one which commands only a single place in Pep Guardiola’s team. Injuries to David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne gave them the opportunity, but they are rarely first choice to start together.
But it’s only when you see Fernandinho and Gundogan operating in tandem that it becomes so obvious how effective their spoiling role is. They are the perfect pair of gentlemen thieves – one causes a distraction while the other nicks the ball off you and sparks a counter attack.
Read more: Manchester City vs Everton: Player ratings as Citizens reclaim top spot
There is a dichotomy at the heart of Gundogan an Fernandinho’s work: They are doing an ugly job but making it look beautiful. There is a tendency to hyperbolise and romanticise everything that great football teams do, but in this case it is not misplaced. No player on the pitch made more tackles than Fernandinho. No player gained possession more times than Gundogan. But they are architects as well as demolition men. No player created more chances than Gundogan and Fernandinho assisted Raheem Sterling’s goal.
They also have an unerring means of communication. Against Everton, Gundogan would often push up and play as an advanced No 8 with Fernandinho still sitting nearer the back four. Yet though a series of secret whistles and signals, they can be at each other’s side within three seconds as the situation requires it. They are City’s emergency service. Or perhaps Deliveroo drivers is a more fitting analogy, buzzing in and out of traffic to be where you need them when you need them.
Warding off the chasing pack
At half-time against Everton, Manchester City organised a Santa dash in which four spectators dashed to and fro to collect prizes, skidding and sliding in light blue Father Christmas outfits on the slippy pitch. They reminded of Bernard, Yerry Mina, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Lucas Digne, hounded and haunted by their opponents and frequently robbed of possession. It’s no wonder that Marco Silva sent his players back onto the pitch five minutes early; it was their only chance to have some space before City returned to their irritating swarming.
There has been an unusual mood of fallibility surrounding City in recent weeks, at least in comparison to their usual strolling majesty. They have now gone six matches without a clean sheet, had conceded the first goal in three of their last five matches before Saturday and had ceded their lead in the Premier League to Liverpool. If the travails of the club across the city puts City’s slight stumble into focus, Pep Guardiola is well aware that City’s financial and sporting strength leaves little margin for error.
That helped to create an air of uncertainty at the Etihad, not helped by an icy wind that caused a chill in the bone marrow. Supporters in this stadium have grown accustomed to being entertained. Excitement was needed to provide the warmth. This was the sort of footballing day that categorises Sunday league players into two distinct camps: The bloodcurdling dressing-room screamers and the rest of us, who peer out the door at the freezing rain and pointedly feel the back of our hamstrings.
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This was not a day for sunshine football. Instead City hassled Everton in possession, with Gundogan and Fernandinho their hurriers-in-chief and forced enough mistakes to make victory a foregone conclusion. Neither will win the plaudits or trinkets that their teammates can expect if this season brings further success. But do not think that their impact is not appreciated. Guardiola understands the importance of his midfield all-rounders.
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