Manchester City trumped Liverpool in the crucial top-of-the-table showdown, ending Jürgen Klopp’s side unbeaten run since the start of the season. Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane scored the goals, but it was the performance of Fernandinho that impressed Matt Pearson.
Since the start of last season, Manchester City have swept through the Premier League with a regal strut. Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva have been anointed the visionary kings, Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero the spiky princes and Vincent Kompany the all-seeing head of Pep Guardiola’s sprawling country palace.
But recently a few cracks have begun to appear in the ceilings, the cutlery has gone unpolished and breakfast hasn’t been served. The butler has been missing.
Any team worth remembering requires the balance provided by the players willing to consider only how best to succeed, to shackle themselves for the greater good, to serve. City’s butler is Fernandinho and on Thursday, in the 2-1 win over Liverpool, the man in the shadows stepped in to the light.
“Fernandinho is easily the best central midfield player in our country right now,” said Sky pundit Graeme Souness after the game. “The amount of work he gets through is overlooked by the technique he has as well. When he wins it, puts a tackle in, he gets his head up and generally makes the best pass that’s on offer.”
In a match defined more by pressure, both on the ball and crackling over the pitch, than by quality, the Brazilian stood out. He won possession for his side nine times in his 72 touches, but this wasn’t a performance easily defined by numbers. The 33-year-old was everywhere, shutting down space before others had realised it had emerged and harrying Liverpool’s midfield trio in a way that exposed their technical limitations and allowed his more illustrious counterparts to fulfil their more glamorous remits.
Fernandinho’s unstinting excellence is a triumph of restraint and discipline as well as skill. Were he playing for a less talented side, there’s little doubt he could have a more significant attacking input but it’s the qualities of anticipation, athleticism, intelligence and desire that Pep Guardiola needs. So they are the ones Fernandinho deploys most often, though his passing is always crisp, urgent and perceptive. The importance of City’s fulcrum became starkly apparent in his absence, when the champions lost to Leicester and Crystal Palace last month.
Unlike the houses of the gentry, football remains – in some respects – egalitarian, if the workers triumph, so do those they serve. But in the modern age, so much of the attention falls upon the goalscorers and the creators that it sometimes escapes attention they cannot thrive without those who graft below stairs.
“What precisely is this ‘greatness’?,” ponders Mr. Stevens, the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1989 novel The Remains of the Day. “Just where, or in what, does it lie? I am quite aware it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart.
“What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.”
Stevens’ observations on the English countryside apply equally well to the man who arrived from Shakhtar Donetsk in 2013. And, true to form, City’s own butler was keen only to praise others, in this case midfield partner Bernardo Silva, rather than reflect on his own performance after Thursday’s win. So it was left to Sane to sum up Fernandinho’s immense contribution.
"Everyone knows Fernandinho is important for us," the man who scored the winner said. "He has to defend the ball, win the ball, pass the ball. He had an amazing game and I'm so pleased he is back for us."
After his absence, and after Thursday night, surely everyone now recognizes Fernandinho’s importance. If Guardiola manages to add more silverware to City’s mantelpiece, the Butler’s role will be crystal clear.