To celebrate 30 years of the Premier League, The Athletic is paying tribute to the 50 greatest individual performances in its history, as voted for by our writers. You can read Oliver Kay’s introduction to our Golden Games series (and the selection rules) here – as well as the full list of all the articles as they unfold.
Picking 50 from 309,949 options is an impossible task. You might not agree with their choices, you will not agree with the order. They did not. It’s not intended as a definitive list. It’s a bit of fun, but hopefully a bit of fun you’ll enjoy between now and August.
When future generations pore over the details of Manchester City’s first decade of Premier League dominance, there will be an understandable urge to alight on a few individual names – those who truly shaped the era rather than merely being witnesses to it.
No case needs making for Roberto Mancini or Pep Guardiola. But when it comes to the players, you could go about the taxonomy in a few different ways. On thrills per minute, Sergio Aguero would take some beating. David Silva would be up there on natural talent. Yaya Toure was arguably the most transformational signing, propelling City into their imperial phase. Vincent Kompany and Kevin De Bruyne embody two different but equally vital forms of leadership.
All of these categories are deeply subjective, of course. But there is another metric that does not leave much room for debate. If we’re going on sheer irreplaceability, there can only really be one winner.
Fernandinho has already steamrolled Sadio Mane, and now he takes a big chunk out of Andy Robertson, too, just barrelling right through him like a runaway train. “That was aggressive pretty aggressive,” says Martin Tyler, but the home fans do not care about that. The match is only four minutes old and already on fire.
Absence is meant to make the heart grow fonder, but any injury to Fernandinho normally led to palpitations. Under Manuel Pellegrini, and particularly under Guardiola, he was a one-man protection racket, giving his team-mates the freedom – and the security – to express themselves.
His job was to be the adult in the room.
“It is my job to fix things in the middle of the pitch. If the opponents break our lines and are attacking our box, something has gone wrong. It is me who has to fix it. It’s a big responsibility. “
When you took him out of the equation, the numbers didn’t quite add up anymore. Never was this more obvious than in December 2018.
City had sold Toure in the summer and declined to sign a replacement. With Fabian Delph newly repurposed as a left-back, Fernandinho was the only defensive midfielder in the squad. When a thigh issue ruled him out of games against Crystal Palace and Leicester City, Guardiola was forced to improvise.
John Stones stepped into the Brazilian’s shoes against Palace. City were about as solid as a candy-floss castle, and even more permeable. Four days later, they lost to Leicester, with Ilkay Gundogan completely overrun in front of the defense.
“It is not necessary to lose these games to see how important Fernandinho is to us,” Guardiola lamented after the Leicester game. “It’s a specific position and we do not have his qualities elsewhere.”
Physically, he is dominant. He has acres of ground to cover, especially when Bernardo Silva and David Silva press, but he makes it look easy, hurtling round in a way that makes you wonder whether his age (33 at this stage) is a clerical error. He bullies Georginio Wijnaldum and Mohamed Salah off the ball in the first half, and spends the second deleting counter-attacks like they were stray commas.
A routine win against Southampton settled City nerves, but their title defense was hanging by a thread when Liverpool arrived in Manchester. Jurgen Klopp’s men held a seven-point lead and were looking increasingly like like champions-elect.
City needed a win and a febrile, twitchy Etihad knew it.
From the first whistle, City were just… on it. This was not the kind of masterclass in control that you imagine Guardiola dreams about; it was a punch-up, a joy ride. It was thrilling. And at the center of everything was Fernandinho.
The Brazilian was already having a fine season – he was in domineering form against Manchester United in November and perhaps even better in the 3-1 win over Everton —but this felt like a new benchmark, a late-career apex for a player whose entire Premier League career was a late-career apex.
He was everywhere. Hounding, bounding. Grabbing the match by the neck and yanking it in City’s direction.
“If a team had three Fernandinhos, they would be champions,” Guardiola once said. On that January night, it seemed like he might have actually gone and cloned him.
A word about his passing. Fernandinho is no playmaker, no deity of tiki-taka, but it is no area of weakness, either. He is purposeful and precise, injecting some momentum whenever the chance arises. Here, within the space of 17 minutes, there are two gorgeous balls out to Raheem Sterling on the right – the first is a golf drive, a ping directly to feet; the second is a looping parabola that takes Robertson out of the game. In the second half, there is a stunning through ball to Aguero that takes out five Liverpool defenders. De Bruyne could not have improved on any of them.
With all due respect to Shakhtar Donetsk, it is amazing – inexplicable, really – that a player as good as Fernandinho spent the first 11 years of his senior career outside of football’s elite leagues.
Whether this was a failure of scouting or of imagination isn’t terribly important, but it does go some way to explaining the slightly curious feel of his career. Top European clubs squabble over the best Brazilian players before they finish puberty; Fernandinho arrived in England at 28. He had never played a competitive game for his country.
It sometimes felt like he was playing in catch-up mode, and while he won 11 major trophies in Ukraine, he would be forgiven for wondering just what he might have achieved had he moved to the Premier League slightly earlier. It is one of the quirks of his City career – and further testament to his importance – that nearly half of it was soundtracked by constant talk about succession plans.
Compared to most of the players who will feature on this list, Fernandinho is not a superstar. That is partly down to his position – his quiet, considered personality is also a factor. But there is also an argument to be made that, for all Guardiola’s public cheerleading, wider recognition only really came when he was on the downslope, when the countdown timer was already ticking.
Maybe this is something like the opposite of hype. With Fernandinho, the appreciation always appeared to lag slightly behind his exploits, as if put through a delay pedal.
Such is the fate of the late-bloomer. But the record will state that the one man whose opinion really mattered never wasted an opportunity to underline the vital role Fernandinho played in his side. Guardiola adored him and understood perfectly that every starship needs ballast.
“Fernandinho can do everything,” Guardiola once said. Against Liverpool, he just about did.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)