LONDON (Reuters) - With Manchester City scoring at will and playing some bewitching attacking football, it has been easy to overlook the contribution made by their three most defensive outfield players.
Fernandinho, John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi are never likely to hog the headlines in a team that has plundered 52 goals in all competitions and features flamboyant playmakers Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva behind deadly finishers such as Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus.
Yet statistics suggest they hold a valid claim to being the three most important players in Pep Guardiola’s squad, following an unbeaten start to the season that has left City eight points clear at the top of the Premier League.
Their record of conceding just 11 goals in 17 matches in all competitions this season is impressive enough on its own, yet the argument gathers pace when you consider their contributions to City’s domination of possession and attacks.
Argentine centre back Otamendi, for example, has had more touches in the Premier League and Champions League combined than any other City player this season, with England centre back Stones second and Brazil midfielder Fernandinho fourth behind De Bruyne.
It is a similar story with passing. Otamendi is once again at the top of the charts for passes attempted, ahead of Fernandinho in second place with Stones in third.
While for pass completion, Stones leads the way for City ahead of Otamendi in second place and Fernandinho in fourth – all three of them currently registering above 90 percent.
In fact, Stones’s rate of 96.6 percent is bettered in European leagues only by the 96.7 percent completed so far by Paris St Germain’s Thiago Silva.
It is not out of the ordinary for a holding midfielder such as Fernandinho to sit near the top of a team’s touch and passing charts – Nemanja Matic has dominated both for Manchester United this season.
Yet the figures for Otamendi and Stones are more unique.
It suggests that all three are the glue binding this most exhilarating of attacking forces together and the bedrock of the goals being bagged by Aguero and the like.
Not that they haven’t been scoring themselves. Stones and Otamendi have netted three times apiece this season while Fernandinho has scored twice.
Needless to say, Guardiola has been the first to recognise the trio’s significance. ”I think Fernandinho right now is one of the three best holding midfielders in the world,” he said ahead of Sunday’s 3-1 win over Arsenal.
“Just as with John (Stones) and Nico (Otamendi), Fernandinho has achieved another level, with his positivity and his mentality. He gives us a lot, with the ball and without the ball.”
That contribution could end up being the key to any success City go on to enjoy this season.
Reporting by Matt Westby; Editing by Toby Davis