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The importance of John Stones to Man City

Not many defenders could do what John Stones has done these past few weeks. The 28-year-old is currently operating in central midfield for Manchester City with Pep Guardiola’s team building momentum. Indeed, City have now won eight matches in-a-row in all competitions and Stones has more than played his part.

Not so long ago, Guardiola was faced with a tactical dilemma. Joao Cancelo’s loan departure to Bayern Munich in January left City so short of options in the full back areas that Guardiola had no choice but to change formation. This is where Stones has made such a difference in the course of Manchester City’s season.

Stones has facilitated City’s switch to a back three with the England international now part of a double pivot in central midfield alongside Rodri. This has provided the platform for the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan to push forward and play with more attacking freedom in the final third. Stones is a valuable member of City’s box midfield unit.

Guardiola has long been aware of Stones’ technical ability. The Catalan coach reportedly wanted to sign the defender when he was at Bayern Munich and asked for Stones to be signed almost as soon as he walked through the door at the Etihad Stadium. Even in times of poor form and criticism, Stones has always had an advocate in Guardiola.

The last month or so have vindicated Guardiola’s faith in Stones. The 28-year-old was particularly effective in City’s 4-1 demolition of Liverpool with Stones key to the way the defending Premier League champions kept the tempo high in the centre of the pitch. He has become Manchester City’s controller. Stones dictates the tempo for the Premier League champions.

Of course, Guardiola has pushed defenders into central midfield in the past. Philipp Lahm was deployed in the middle of the pitch by Guardiola at Bayern Munich while Oleksandr Zinchenko frequently found himself in a central area for Manchester City. Stones is doing something slightly different, but there is precedent for it.

The emergence of Stones as a central midfielder and Manchester City’s tactical shift to accommodate him have been costly for Kyle Walker. The 32-year-old has been one of Guardiola’s most useful players over the last few seasons, but the current back three being used by City doesn’t leave much room for him.

“No, he cannot do it,” said Guardiola when asked if Walker could play in the current system. “He will always have pace; Kyle at 60 years old will be the fastest player in this room. To play inside you have to have educated movements – he doesn’t have every one of the characteristics. He has played as a full-back coming inside in the past with four at the back. He has done really well but this shape of three at the back and two in the middle, he cannot do it.”

Manchester City might have the deepest squad in the Premier League, but Guardiola has been forced to find answers to several problems this season. The summer signing of Haaland changed the character of City’s attack and Cancelo and Zinchenko’s departure in back-to-back windows also created an issue in defence.

It says a lot about Guardiola’s ability as a coach that Manchester City are now playing their most impressive, consistent football of the season right now. Arsenal still hold a six-point advantage at the top of the Premier League table, but City are hitting their stride and the form of Stones in central midfield is a factor in this.

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