Friday, 14 March 2008

In praise of Gelson Fernandes

Although the blaze of our initial triumphs is fading away, there is one flame which has brightened as those around it have died out. None of our Autumn heroes have been able to repeat their feats through the winter, or into our spring time pursuit of Aston Villa for the Inter-Toto Cup places. As we descend from the peaks of excellence into the foothills of honest mediocrity, only one player is willing to drag us back up the mountainside: our player of 2008 (pace Joe Hart), Gelson Fernandes.

An archetypal Eriksson signing: young, exotic, and so unknown he wasn’t even on Football Manager 2007. He was given the label ‘one for the future’, which, as Felipe Caicedo knows, limits a player to token twenty minutes here and there. Serious involvement seemed unlikely: the Hamman/Johnson/Elano triangle was the core of early successes and Fernandes was restricted to the fringes. However, losses of form and fitness allowed Gelson to carve out a role in the team no one expected on his arrival.

He has been involved in every game since the loss at White Hart Lane in December, including uninterrupted starts since the West Ham double header in January. A partnership with Player of the Season-elect Didi Hamann has grown, founded on antithetical styles. Hamann, thirteen years older than Fernandes, plays with minimum effort: covering only as much ground as he needs to retain possession. Gelson’s energy levels are unlike anyone else at City. A comparison is often made, quite wrongly, with a windup toy: Fernandes never slows down and never needs re-winding.

He is also very good at football. At first he seemed like a purely destructive player – no bad thing, in the post-Makelele Premier League. His size (not quite Yaya Toure but certainly no Stephen Ireland) and athleticism dominates opposition midfielders. His short passing is as good as any of our other midfielders. His touch is immaculate. But in recent months he has expanded his sphere of influence beyond the centre circle and deep into opponents’ halves. He has scored as many this year as Stephen Ireland and Michael Johnson. In recent weeks he has been even better at Gerrardian runs into the box than the master of the Steven Gerrard impression himself, Michael Johnson.

After Joey Barton and Paul Dickov it is nice to have players who rely more on talent than on enthusiasm. I know it’s a cliché, but I would play with passion if selected by Sven. But sometimes I fear that we’ve overcompensated: whether with the understated coolness of Hamann, Corluka and Johnson, or the slightly mercenary feeling around Petrov and Elano. So the combination of a talented athlete and footballer with an overpowering will to win, found best in Gelson (and Micah Richards, and hopefully, in time, Valeri Bozhinov), that makes him the success he is.

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