Thursday, June 26, 2014

CEPHALAPOD MOLLUSC AHOY



I have been dying to use that headline for some time now. Anyone, who has had the pleasure of being given a handshake by an octopus will know exactly what it's like to play football opposite Fernando Francisco Reges, Manchester City's new all-action midfielder.

It was around the time Fernando, born in Alto Paraíso, Brazil, earned praise from all quarters for his tireless tracking of Manchester United’s star men in a 2009 Champions League quarter final ultimately lost by his club FC Porto, that his star really began to rise and in particular, his unfeasibly telescopic legs began to take on a life of their own. Industrious, energetic and originally highly effective in a restricting no holds barred midfield role, he became known amongst the Porto faithful as o polvo, or the octopus, his gangly legs seen as gadgets for getting in the way of even the trickiest opponent bearing down on the home goal. The ability to extend a long limb to remove the ball from an opponent or fly in with a trademark double footed lunge whilst keeping the feet low and facing sufficiently downwards to avoid sanction have made him famous in Portugal. He possesses an uncanny ability to slide in and wrap those legs around flying limbs and ball and steal it like a midnight thief.


As time has gone on and his role at the then Portuguese champions began to evolve, football watchers in Portugal became aware of other facets to his game. Far from a useful and reliable nicker of balls from the feet of advancing strikers, the then Brazilian was full of energy and could gallop up the pitch in no time at all. The initial safe short passes out of deep lying midfield began to take on more dimension too and he has developed into one of the best all-purpose midfielders of his type in the Portuguese league and beyond.

 
Fernando enjoys a moment of notoriety v Sporting

Fernando’s record at the Dragão is impressive: in seven years with the club he has won the Europa League, four Portuguese League titles, four Portuguese cups and five Supercups (the local equivalent of the Community Shield, which always counts as a trophy at City), whilst at the same time also gaining another valuable asset for City, Champions League mileage, in total 34 games’ worth. As time has gone by, Porto’s well-defined methods of finding young South American talent and moving them on to the bigger European leagues at a huge profit, has meant that Fernando, along with goalkeeper Helton, have become the club’s most experienced players. Not only that, in the midfielder's case, but also one of the playing staff’s most discreet members off the pitch and one of their number's most consistent on it. 

As the call to play for Brazil never came, Fernando took the step on 15th December 2013, of taking out Portuguese nationality, not an uncommon move for Brazilians plying their trade in this part of the football world. Indeed Deco had done the same thing at Porto whilst wiry attacker Liedson also made the move at Sporting and current international Pepe is also a naturalised Brazilian. This decision not only supposedly made him available for Paulo Bento’s Portugal but meant that any move to another European country would not be tied up in administrative red tape. Having grown up as a footballer in Portugal, he has remained a staunch admirer of the skills of Dunga and Gilberto Silva, other master craftsmen in his position on the pitch. Ironically the Brazilian national team has gone from one that placed little emphasis on the need for a holding midfielder to the current situation where Luis Gustavo, Paulinho and City’s Fernandinho are all high profile parts of the Selecção's game plan.

Like many of his kind, Fernando left Brazil at a relatively early age, having played for Serie C (third tier) Vila Nova in Brazil, but was bought by Porto ostensibly on the back of a string of eye-catching displays for Brazil in the 2007 South America Youth Championship. After a year on loan with the now defunct Estrela de Amadora in Lisbon, Fernando began to forge himself a reputation in the north, picking up admirers at Juventus, Inter, Roma, Liverpool and Manchester United as his match time at Porto increased. 

Under the stewardship of wily old Portuguese coach Jesualdo Ferreira, Fernando gained an increasing amount of playing time, inheriting the octopus moniker for his ability to stick out his so-called tentacles and wrap them around the ball. A reputation as an arch tackler and tidy-up merchant did not do him justice, however, as his present day incarnation is much more mult-faceted than that. Once Jesualdo gave way to younger coaches in the shape of André Villas Boas, Vitor Pereira and Paulo Fonseca, it became evident that Fernando had become an undroppable fixture in the side. As the official FC Porto website still claims today, 


Fernando reads the game as few do, recovers the ball with incredible ease and rarely commits fouls, making him one of the least booked players in the League. He is also capable of keeping it simple and is an efficient passer. The number 25 is omnipresent and has evolved into a player who can also create in the attacking part of the pitch”.

 

But there is another side to the player’s career that needs addressing too: while he has an innate ability to clear up muddles on the pitch, off it is another story altogether. He has never played for Portugal because of a wrangle about documentation and dates between the FPF (the Portuguese Football Federation) and FIFA. After three months of FIFA pondering an announcement was made: Fernando was not officially Portuguese at the time of being involved in the afore-mentioned Brazilian Under 20s tournament and thus could not play for Portugal. 

When negotiating to move to City last December, the transfer also became bogged down in an unholy mess of paperwork, resulting in the player eventually re-signing for FC Porto, to enable them to continue to demand a transfer fee come the summer (his contract was set to run out in June). In some ways the renewal of the contract told City that they would get their man, albeit at a price. That price, just €15 million euros, is still something of a snip. Porto hold 80% of the player’s registration and it is understood that City have bought him outright, as no other scenario would be possible thanks to premier league registration rulings. If his recent career has been blighted by red tape, and the occasional red card, it is clear that Porto’s omnipresent number 25, will be a good fit in the Manchester City number 6 shirt, vacated this summer by stalwart defender Joleon Lescott. 

So, is Fernando purely cover for Fernadinho and Yaya Touré? The latter’s announcements via his ever-comical personal representative Dimitri Seluk are becoming hard to decipher. After cake gate, a small storm is now brewing over complaints about City restricting the time he could spend with his dying brother. Whether these are odd moments of preamble to yet another contract negotiation, or the big Ivorian really wants out, only time will tell, but, interestingly, as Portuguese football expert Vasco  Mota Pereira says, The one aspect where Fernando may suffer is City's tactical formation: He has always proved to play exponentially better when acting on his own (usually in a 4x3x3). In the words of the great Fernando Redondo, playing him alongside another midfielder "is like playing with one eye closed". 

O JOGO, Porto's daily football paper, carries the news today


City’s liking for a roaming supposedly defensive midfielder (Touré) and one with more fixed responsibilities (Fernandinho) does not immediately tally with this. However, Manuel Pellegrini’s liking for fast raiding players coming from deep to support the front four, will certainly click with the new improved attacking aspects of the ex-Porto man. Mota Pereira continues “Fernando is probably one of the best (and most underrated) holding midfielders in European football at the moment. His evolution at FC Porto over the past few years was nothing short of astonishing, as he progressed from an exclusively defensive midfielder to a ball-playing one. Under Jesualdo Ferreira, he learned to master defensive actions and positions to perfection; under André Villas-Boas and Vítor Pereira, he was asked to be the primary hub of these possession-oriented sides and given the possibility to roam forward. Despite his improvements as far as technical skills are concerned, he cannot be considered a master of the art, particularly in a team like City. Not unlike Javi García, Fernando excels when his team are compact but the Brazilian-born midfielder is able to sweep and press higher up due to his more adventurous positioning and physical skills. On the other hand, while the Spanish midfielder is not exactly comfortable on the ball, Fernando is always willing to provide an out-ball to his team-mates.” 


 Whether he is seen as a stand-in for one or the other part of the traditional two man City central midfield or a starter in his own right, City fans are set to see yet another impressive performer striding the Etihad pitch come August.

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