Fernandinho and Vincent Kompany. With time, you may have thought that these two would have been slowly lost in Pep Guardiola’s masterplan, quietly removed from the equation as they find their reserved spots at the old age home on the Manchester City bench.
Then, you see the way they operate in matches such as the one against Liverpool, and remember that football is all about ability and thought, to be able to conduct the manager’s instructions to the book, and execute them without fault, regardless of age.
And although Kompany’s own performance wasn’t faultless, his leadership on the field of play at the Etihad Stadium cemented an important 2-1 victory against the league leaders, emboldened by their own narratives of unbeaten seasons and bravery, but brought firmly back down to earth by the excellence of City’s display.
In the middle of the park, space was hard to find, but Fernandinho escaped those harsh conditions to deliver a midfield masterclass of sheer determination and love for the more robust side of Guardiola’s thoughts. Without him, City have been the nervous, brittle wreck of Guardiola’s Fernandinho-less team that lost to Crystal Palace and Leicester City, still learning how to play when he’s not around.
Here, the Brazilian was the lead orchestrator for the likes of David and Bernardo Silva, Sergio Agüero and Leroy Sané to go and park themselves in the opposition’s half, to cause havoc in those uncomfortable areas where opposing Liverpool defenders didn’t want to be. Without him, this win may not have been possible. He goes about his job with no fuss or sparkle, his twinkling demolition acts sometimes going unnoticed.
This spectacle had it all – fine margins, technical brilliance and robust booting of the ball into the stands in the final minutes. It may have all been so different had Sadio Mané converted his early chance in the first half, but such is the concept of the game that the top teams need, maybe even summon, Lady Luck more often than not – John Stones and Ederson knowing her better than most.
Without that goal-line clearance, Agüero wouldn’t have put City in the lead. He showed his unquestionable brilliance with a close-range finish of devilish precision, this his 37th goal against the other self-proclaimed ‘Big Six’ sides since 2011/2012. He, like Kompany and Fernandinho, has been around for the glowing years of City’s rise, a title-winning centre forward seemingly unnerved by any doubts that may follow him.
And when Liverpool seemed to wrestle the initiative back in their favour with Roberto Firmino’s not so “no-look” header in the 64th minute, the sense of a shift in power was clear – City had hardly been switched on after the break, and Jurgen Klopp’s move to bring on Fabinho for James Milner had stifled City’s job.
Before this, Kompany had performed a double clearing act, first with his head and then with a heaving swing of his left foot, being in the right place at the right time like he so often is, this 32-year-old Belgian brute of a man, unerring in his utterances towards Mohamed Salah when he had lunged to bring the Egyptian to his haunches.
And as Elisabeth Elliot once said: “Maturity starts with the willingness to give oneself”, the kind of unselfish acts of nature that allow the rest of the team to flourish. This is where Kompany and Fernandinho excel, the former a handyman of those first days in 2008 when City were still dreaming, and the latter an added piece of protection for the younger ones, the Johns and Aymerics of the world.
These are the fruits of old age, the nous that comes from hard graft and selflessness, successful title triumphs and faltering title challenges. Fernandinho contorted his body in ways that brought cheers from the City fans and thumbs-up from Guardiola. He started moves and stifled others, never missing a beat.
He is no Jorginho or N’Golo Kanté – indeed, these seem to be the variations of the modern-day defensive linchpin – but his longevity and willingness to learn and improve at the ripe old age of 33 make him arguably one of the best in his position.
And although he didn’t provide the assist for Sané’s winning strike – a finish that made you wonder what would’ve have happened if we still had rectangular goal posts – his name should be stitched into a banner and hung up alongside Kompany’s. “Fernandinho and Kompany: the men behind the scenes”, it should read.
For Liverpool, this can only be taken as a learning curve as they come to grips with their own dizzying reality. They are the league leaders, and with it comes great pressure from those chasing them down. There are those that seem to enjoy their long suffering and wait for a Premier League title, the first to remind us of those Lovren comments or Virgil van Dijk comparisons.
It’s telling that Agüero’s goal came from Lovren’s side, and for all of Liverpool’s defensive improvement with Van Dijk in the team, there’s still a weakness with Lovren there, a little switched off when all his senses should have been in overdrive with Agüero around.
Such were the margins, those microseconds that turn out to be the most important. For City, the gap has been reduced, and in times like these, the so-called “fossils” stand up and bring that experience to the table.
Kompany and Fernandinho will be long gone in a few years, but for now, their chiseled old nature is just what Guardiola will need for the months ahead.