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Aug 27, 2014

Fernando fits Pellegrini's plan perfectly

Fernando -- nicknamed 'The Octopus' -- joined Manchester City from Porto in June 2014.

It became something of a cliché toward the end of the 2012-13 season to blame a lot of Manchester City's failings for that title defence on the sale of Nigel de Jong.

The Dutchman had played a part in the title win the previous campaign, and following his sale the Blues were trailing their city rivals by up to 15 points. It finished as an 11-point gap, and Nigel de Jong would have helped to plug a few gaps along the way, the critics said.

However, it was always something of a false argument; City's problems that year had nothing to do with conceding more goals -- in fact, they let in just five more than when they won the league. No, the problem was that they'd scored a whopping 27 fewer. And de Jong offered nothing going forward, as his two goals in his 137 appearances proved.

I start on de Jong because of something that was said on "The Sports Bar" on TalkSport as I was driving home earlier in the week. There was all-around general disbelief that the Blues had sold the Dutch midfielder in 2012, only to replace him two years later with a Brazilian who does the same job: Fernando.

Fernando acts as the perfect midfield foil for Yaya Toure.

We may be only two games into the season, but so far there are indications that the new signing is something of an upgrade on the previous full-blooded defensive midfielder to don a City shirt.

De Jong, for all his tough tackles and all-round great defensive play, had one of the best passing accuracy statistics of any Premier League player ever. That's because he rarely got the Blues moving up the pitch, rather winning the ball back and giving it to the nearest teammate, usually someone like Gareth Barry or Yaya Toure standing a matter of 6 feet away.

Not that there was much wrong with that, mind you, it's exactly what he was in the team to do. His job was solely to protect the back four and get the Blues on the attack by winning possession and giving it to someone who was better than him at getting the ball forward. That was fine in a 4-5-1 formation, but as soon as the manager opts to add a second striker, the midfield needs to become more box-to-box.

If it doesn't, the two forwards could become isolated.

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Roberto Mancini wasn't particularly a frequent user of a 4-4-2 system, but Manuel Pellegrini almost dogmatically sticks to it. It's how he wants his side to play, and the setup is one of the biggest reasons why the champions' games are so frequently good to watch. It takes risks; it's designed to leave space in the midfield in order to commit more bodies forward and put opponents under pressure higher up the pitch.

(That's not a criticism of Mancini's system, either; his plan to dominate possession and midfield worked frequently, too.)

And here's why Fernando is such an important addition to the squad. He does that anchoring role in which he protects the line of defence, but equally he is capable of carrying the ball forward and has a range of passing that would put many centre-midfielders to shame. His goal tally, one feels, isn't going to be much better than de Jong's, but his overall contribution is looking like it will be much more valuable.

On the opening weekend, he sprinted past the centre half to block a goal-bound effort around the post as Newcastle broke away. The pace was extraordinary. It had to be because he'd been busy supporting Toure and the rest of the team further up the pitch.

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His superior mobility was on display once again on Monday evening, as he regularly darted left and right, picking up the pieces of the midfield, while Toure got himself back into position. One of the biggest criticisms the Ivorian has had ever since he arrived in Manchester is that he's often lazy -- a harsh statement, perhaps, but he does tend to amble occasionally. Fernando allows him to do that in a way de Jong or Barry never could.

It means City fans will get the best of both worlds this season. There's the security of having a defensive midfielder breaking up the play as there was two years ago, but it will come without sacrificing a striker.

And when Pellegrini wishes to protect a narrow lead and he opts to shut the game down, he can now throw Fernandinho into the mix by substituting one of his offensive players. Imagine chasing the game and having that midfield three to get through; I know City fans won't sit easy on a narrow lead because years of experience says it will end badly, but there will be a level of trust at the Etihad this season that the champions can see out a win that's never been there before.

Fernando will be one of the least 'spectacular' players the Blues signed this summer, but he will definitely be one of the most important.

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