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Stuff that matters

“One touch, two. If there are three, something strange has happened.” It’s early evening in Seville, the sun is coming through a crack in the curtain, and as Fernando is discussing his craft, there is a calm, almost peaceful simplicity to the way he talks, which Sevilla supporters have come to see reflected in his play. On Tuesday the former Manchester City midfielder returns to England, but don’t expect to see him on the ball much at Stamford Bridge. That’s not what he’ll be there for.

“It’s a very hard place to play and we’ll struggle: Chelsea have quality, talented players, but we travel in hope, knowing we can leave happy,” the 33-year-old Brazilian says. Recent history suggests he could be right. It took an extra-time winner for Bayern Munich to defeat Sevilla in the European Super Cup and they land in London as Europa League winners, having defeated Manchester United in the semi-finals and then Internazionale in the final. “I got messages from City fans congratulating me,” he grins. Unbeaten in the league, something is building and if there is a team that can resist, it is they. And if there is a player who can, it is he.

“Oh, I suffer,” he says smiling, but it doesn’t often look like it. Instead there’s a tranquillity about him. “A brilliant player, so good tactically,” according to his teammate Joan Jordan, “wonderful” in the words of Monchi, the sporting director, he stands at the base of the Sevilla midfield. From there, the man Porto teammates called the Octopus, legs everywhere, reaching everything, applies the lessons learned since arriving in Europe at 19. No one recovers more possession nor completes more passes, the ball won and moved on.

“I was better physically, I ran much more but didn’t run well, didn’t do the right thing. I think much better than I did,” he says. “With experience you play better because your head is better.”

There have been 237 games at Porto, 57 at Galatasaray and 102 at City, plus 44 at Sevilla, each an education. There may have been no teacher such as Pep Guardiola, a coach who makes you fall in love with football, Fernando says. Which may seem a strange thing to say about a manager who gave you five league starts in that final season, and left you heading for the exit. But listening to him, thinking about what he says – and listening and thinking are themes he returns to often – it makes sense. All of it does.

“He’s different,” Fernando says. “Guardiola works with such enthusiasm, studies everything. He’s always searching, trying to understand the game better. Every session is an opportunity. If you play a bad pass, he stops: ‘Why did you play that pass?’” There’s a pause and the Brazilian draws his thumb and forefinger together. “He looks at the tiny details, the smallest advantage. All that makes you improve. I loved him as a coach.

“It’s true that sometimes he puts you in an unfamiliar position and you think: ‘Madre mia, what am I doing here?’ My final season was difficult because Guardiola changed players [around] a lot and I wasn’t used to playing in different positions. I struggled. At first, I didn’t know what to do, where to be, where to go, and that cost me. I was lost. But later I understood it had helped me grow. I learned a lot.”

Do you miss City? “They were good times. I love the city, the supporters are great, [Jesús] Navas and I talk about it, but I’m happy here.” And Fernandinho? There’s a warm smile. “We’re very close: he’s a special person and, yes, I miss him. I had a year left. It’s a great club but I wasn’t playing so I wasn’t happy. I didn’t feel important, like I was contributing, so I wanted to leave. City didn’t want to loan me; they wanted to sell. Galatasaray came and I said: ‘OK, let’s go.’”

“I was at Porto six years and always played as a pivot,” Fernando continues. “Things changed with Guardiola. I played the occasional game at full-back, which although hard, sharpens your ability to read games. In Turkey I played as an 8 and a 6, at full-back and centre-back. At first you don’t enjoy it but with time you understand what your teammates need from you and what the player in that position needs too.”

The benefits are seen at Sevilla, back in a familiar role. Fernando is usually described as the “lungs” of the side, but insists his head matters more. “Physical condition can help but you do the job through intelligence and positioning. Look at Sergio Busquets and Casemiro; they’re the best, still above the rest. Maybe Casemiro is first now, his level is so high, but Busquets is No 1. He’s intelligent and plays simply: if he has to play first time, first time. If it’s two touches, then two. He knows. That’s what makes the difference with a pivot.

“Positioning is most important, communication too … There are games where the opposition puts a lot of players between the lines and it’s very difficult to control. United for example: Bruno Fernandes, Martial, Rashford. I’m always talking to Joan [Jordan] and to Diego Carlos and [Jules] Koundé to ensure we’re well positioned.

“I’ve worked in front of some very good centre-backs. Rolando, Bruno Alves, Vincent Kompany. But as a pair, I’ve never played with a duo like this.”

Pursued by City, who offered €55m for him, Koundé will be absent against Chelsea, having tested positive for Covid-19, the task even tougher. Fernando watches everything, he says, including former teammate James Rodríguez and Chelsea. And? What stands out?

“That individual quality. The players they have up front, their movement. They can hurt you even when they’re not playing particularly well. Teams like Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City are very strong [economically]. At the end of every season they make very good signings. Thiago Silva is one of the best centre-backs I’ve seen.”

Sevilla feel in shape to challenge in Europe and at home, although they lost 1-0 at Granada on Saturday. “Julen Lopetegui has built a team very well, everyone’s ready to compete,” Fernando says. “There are always 13, 14 happy and the other 10 are unhappy; not at Sevilla – and I haven’t seen this anywhere else. Footballers are also people, 25 of them all thinking in different ways, and that’s hard but this is a good group, well managed, which is why we did well last year.

“There are teams with greater resources, so it’s not easy. But Leicester have won a Premier League and we have the same approach. It’s difficult but it’s possible.”