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Manchester City

How Manchester City’s John Stones has transformed into one of the best central defenders in Europe

Martyn Cooke

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John Stones

As Manchester City continue to steamroll their way through the Premier League and Champions League this season it is their manager, Pep Guardiola, and the vast array of attacking talent at the club’s disposal that have been the focus of much critical acclaim.

It is not hard to see why. City have scored 31 goals in their opening 11 league fixtures of the new campaign, making them by some distance the most prolific team in English football, and have produced some of the most enthralling, free-flowing attacking football that has been seen over the past decade.

Guardiola has implemented a playing style and philosophy at the Etihad Stadium that is both exciting to watch and difficult for opponents to prevent and the Citizens are threatening to leave their title rivals far behind them.

However, whilst it only fair that the likes of Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane and Kevin de Bruyne accept the plaudits for their fine early season form, it is at the other end of the pitch where John Stones has emerged as an equally as important figure in this current City team.

Early criticism and struggle at the Etihad

John Stones has certainly not had an easy ride at the Etihad Stadium since joining Manchester City in the summer of 2016 and he has had to contend with a deluge of criticism from the media since the moment he put pen to paper on a contract at the club.

Having emerged as one of the brightest young central defenders in the country after flourishing at Everton under the guidance of Roberto Martinez, there was little surprise that some of the so-called ‘big clubs’ were tempted by the possibility of securing his signature.

However, it was City that moved decisively in August 2016 to confirm his transfer from Everton for an eye-watering fee of £47.5 million.

The transfer value, which made Stones the world’s second most expensive defender, brought criticism from some quarters, who derived the idea that City should be spending such a large sum of money on a player that still had so much to prove.

The then-22-year-old had developed a reputation at Goodison Park for being an extremely talented ball-playing defender and yet there were concerns over his consistency, ability to defend and apparent habit of making costly mistakes.

City were certainly not buying the finished article and had gambled a significant portion of their transfer budget on what was fundamentally a player with potential.

Stones’ first season at the Etihad Stadium was far from perfect and many of the concerns cited over the summer of 2016 appeared to be true.

He was part of a defensive unit that looked incredibly fragile at times, although the players around him were equally at fault, and he received intense scrutiny and criticism from the media after a number of costly errors. The young defender’s price-tag made him an easy corner for the ever-present sceptics.

However, the new campaign has seen Stones emerge as one of the cornerstones of City’s unbeaten start to the season and his performances in the centre of the defensive unit have been just as significant as the exploits of the forward line.

He has started to fulfil his potential and looks more composed, confident and reassured than ever before – the 23-year-old looks twice the player that he was just six months ago.

No one has ever doubted his ball-playing ability and Stones fits beautifully into Pep Guardiola’s total-football philosophy. However, he has also improved the defensive side of his game and is a much more dominant presence on the pitch than he has been in previous seasons.

Week-by-week he seems to improve and it is significant that the central defender has been brilliant consistent so far this campaign and no longer looks prone to fundamental errors.

Stones looks every inch to be one of the best defenders in Europe and you sense that there is still plenty of potential that is yet to be fulfilled.

Transformation or evolution?

So, what has happened over the previous six months to transform John Stones into one of the most prominent central defenders in Europe?

Pep Guardiola is certainly a key influence and it is no surprise that one of the best managers in the modern game has been able to facilitate a drastic improvement in Stones’ game.

It is also worth noting that the Spaniard is a tactical innovator and his unique philosophy and training methods can take a prolonged period of time to be fully understood by his players.

Every Manchester City player appears to have fully grasped the tactical initiatives that Guardiola has implemented and the initial year of learning appears to have set the team up for a dominant second season.

It should also not be understated what a difference some of Guardiola’s summer signings have made.

Last year Stones was deployed in front of Claudio Bravo, a goalkeeper that appeared completely incapable of making a save, and it is perhaps little wonder that the uncertainty that the Chilean emitted spread through the entire defensive unit.

It is also worth highlighting that the drastically diminished talents of Bacary Sagna at right-back resulted in Stones often being overloaded by attackers or dragged out of position in order to cover the ageing Frenchman.

However, the summer saw the arrival of Benfica goalkeeper Ederson and Tottenham Hotspur full back Kyle Walker. Now, surrounded by a world-class goalkeeper and a top quality right back, Stones appears much more confident in the players around him which is only enhancing his performance levels.

The young defender is thriving in an environment where he is surrounded by superior players when compared to his colleagues in his debut season at the club.

Finally, it is also worth remembering what City bought in the summer of 2016 when they spent £47.5 million on Stones.

He was a young central defender that had bags of untapped potential and there were few people around the Etihad Stadium who thought that he was the complete, finished article.

He received a lot of criticism in his first season at the club, mainly based on his price tag, and many of the errors that he made were little more than a case of a young man learning his trade.

The English media revel in building up expectations around players and then knocking them back down again – the obsessive criticism of Stones during his debut campaign seems completely out of proportion when you consider that he was still a young player who was learning the game.

Nonetheless, Guardiola knew what he was buying and his faith in the defender’s talent has never wavered.

Now, just over one year on, Stones has established himself as one of the best central defenders in Europe, a key figure in City’s unbeaten start to the campaign and will probably be one of the first names on the England team sheet when Gareth Southgate’s team travel to Russia in 2018.

It looks like those critics will be proved wrong after all.

Martyn is currently a PTA and Research Assistant in the Department of Exercise Science at the Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). In addition to his teaching role he is also undertaking a PhD in Sports History that is exploring the origins and development of football in Staffordshire. Prior to working at MMU, Martyn spent a decade operating in the sport and leisure industry in a variety of roles including as a Sports Development Officers, PE Teacher, Football Coach and Operation Manager.

Liverpool

Liverpool 4-3 Manchester City: Three talking points from Anfield

Rob Meech

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Liverpool
Photo: Reuters

Liverpool ended Manchester City’s unbeaten Premier League record and climbed to third spot after breathtaking encounter at Anfield.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fabulous early strike was cancelled out by Leroy Sane as the two teams went into the half-time break level-pegging. Three goals in nine second-half minutes looked to have given Liverpool an insurmountable advantage, with Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah all striking.

However, City mounted a late comeback and set up a grandstand finish thanks to goals from Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan. Liverpool, though, held on for a deserved victory as Pep Guardiola’s men suffered their first defeat of the campaign. Here are three talking points…

Rampant Liverpool turn on the style

If any fixture was going to prove City’s undoing, it was this one. Liverpool are unpredictable but when on top of their game, few teams can live with them. They were respectful of City but undaunted by the challenge they faced, taking the game to their opponents right from the kick-off.

In their first match since Philippe Coutinho’s departure to Barcelona, Liverpool showed the Brazilian is not irreplaceable. The Fab Four may have been reduced to three, but each of Mane, Salah and Firmino found the net. The movement and pace with which they attack is frightening, as City found to their cost.

Record signing Virgil van Dijk was ruled out of the clash and Liverpool’s defensive deficiencies were magnified in his absence, with recalled goalkeeper Loris Karius also unconvincing. The Reds are still a work in progress in that regard, but under manager Jurgen Klopp they are fast becoming a force to be reckoned with.

City succumb but remain in the driving seat

Many believed it was City’s destiny to become only the second Premier League team to go through a season undefeated, following Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2003/04. But such talk can now be consigned to the rubbish bin. Despite their sensational form, it would have been a monumental achievement not to lose a single fixture.

In one respect, Guardiola will be glad it has happened. Their advantage at the top of the table remains 15 points, albeit perhaps only for 24 hours, and there is no indication this result will spark a poor run of form. City fought back valiantly after the shock of conceding three times in quick succession, which will please the Spaniard greatly.

Guardiola was philosophical in defeat and recognised his side had played their part in a magnificent contest. Sometimes, a reality check is a good thing. City may no longer be invincible, but they are still the overwhelming favourites to be crowned Premier League champions in May.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is proving his worth

His Liverpool career did not start the way he would have imagined after completing a summer switch from Arsenal. In a quest to play regular football, Oxlade-Chamberlain moved to pastures new and hoped he would be rejuvenated. Initially, he struggled for game-time and his brief performance were often derided. As a result, he lost his place in the England squad.

However, Oxlade-Chamberlain is growing in stature and produced arguably his best display in a Liverpool shirt against the runaway Premier League leaders. Nothing builds confidence like a goal and his long-range strike that gave the Reds a ninth-minute lead did just that.

Playing in the central role he had coveted, Oxlade-Chamberlain was a dominant figure, using his strength and pace to great effect. His transfer to Liverpool was greeted with scepticism, but it’s clear to see that working under Klopp is having a positive impact. The former Southampton man will hope it’s enough to help him regain his place in the national team.

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Champions League

Are Manchester City potential 2017/18 Champions League winners?

Rob Meech

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Manchester City
Photo: Reuters

With a seemingly unassailable advantage at the top of the table, Manchester City are all but guaranteed to be crowned this season’s Premier League champions. However, manager Pep Guardiola, not to mention the club’s fiercely ambitious owners, will have an even greater prize on their minds.

The Cityzens have never won the Champions League, but such has been their form in all competitions that they must surely be in contention to lift the most coveted trophy in European football. Here, The Boot Room analyses Manchester City’s prospects of becoming the first English club to win the Champions League since 2012.

Performances so far

Mirroring their fortunes in the Premier League, Manchester City dominated the first stage of the Champions League, qualifying for the last 16 with ease as Group F winners.

Drawn with Napoli, Feyenoord and Shakhtar Donetsk, City won their first five fixtures – scoring 13 goals in the process – before an unexpected defeat with a weakened team to the Ukrainian outfit ended their 100 per cent record and removed some of the gloss.

The two wins over Italian giants Napoli – 2-1 at the Etihad and 4-2 away – were particularly impressive given their form in Serie A. Paired against Swiss side Basel in the last 16 – the round at which they bowed out of the competition last year – City are very highly fancied to book their spot in the quarter-finals.

Squad strength

Guardiola has assembled one of the strongest squads in European football; one to rival the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Since last season, the Spaniard has focused on strengthening his defence. Out went Aleksandar Kolarov, Pablo Zabaleta and Gael Clichy, who were all deemed surplus to requirements, while in came upgrades Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy. Goalkeeper Ederson has been a revelation since arriving from Benfica and shored up a back line that had been their Achilles heel.

Another summer arrival, Bernardo Silva, has been used more sparingly but provides depth in central midfield. City also boast in their ranks arguably the best player in Europe this season, Kevin de Bruyne, who has been a tour de force in central midfield alongside the guile and subtlety of David Silva.

Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus, currently sidelined through injury, provide genuine potency in front of goal.

Manager

Although the investment has been substantial, Guardiola must take credit for improving his young stars. The rise of Raheem Sterling is a pertinent example. The England star flattered to deceive last season but has been rejuvenated, scoring for fun and providing real creativity in City’s all-conquering side.

As a player, Guardiola never experienced Champions League glory with Barcelona but he twice guided them to the trophy as manager, in 2009 and 2011. He could not repeat the feat at Bayern Munich, although he did capture the Bundesliga title on three successive occasions.

Now in his second season in Manchester, the 46-year-old is yet to win silverware. However, given City’s current position as runaway Premier League leaders, that is sure to change – perhaps in spectacular fashion.

Chances of winning

It’s no surprise City are rated favourites by bookmakers to lift the prestigious cup later this year. One only needs to look at their record this season to see they are the form team in Europe. In a division as competitive as the Premier League, their 19-match winning sequence was an extraordinary feat.

With a favourable last-16 tie, City will believe they can progress to the last eight and beyond. Football is an unpredictable game, but nobody would be shocked to see them walking out in the showpiece final in four months’ time. And with Guardiola at the helm, they have the ideal manager to mastermind the club’s maiden European title.

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Arsenal

Why Manchester United must go all out to steal Alexis Sanchez away from Manchester City

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Photo: Reuters

In the midst of winter, things are starting to heat up.

It seemed for all the world that Manchester City were finally going to get their man in the January transfer window after missing out on Arsenal talisman Alexis Sanchez on deadline day in late August.

On that occasion they offered £60 million to lure the Chilean to the Etihad, only to see their offer rebuffed by the Gunners after Arsene Wenger failed with his pursuit of replacement Thomas Lemar.

Instead, it seemed inevitable that Pep Guardiola would finally persuade Arsenal into selling once January came around, a feeling that has grown due to a lack of contract negotiations between Sanchez and his current Club – although it may not be as straightforward a move as first seemed.

Quite sensational reports from around the globe over the past two days have now suggested that City’s bitter rivals Manchester United are also in the race to sign the soon to be out-of-contract Arsenal forward.

Sky Sports Italia were the ones that broke the news on Thursday, claiming that United have now entered advanced talks with Sanchez’s agent ahead of a proposed move to Old Trafford this month.

The report also claims that United are preparing to offer a larger transfer fee – which the The Guardian believe to be in the region of £25 million – than Manchester City, and that any deal that would see Sanchez move to Old Trafford could also see the out-of-favour Henrikh Mkhitaryan go the other way.

And quite frankly, if there’s any truth behind these reports, United should go all out to get him.

After starting the Premier League season in fine form, setting the pace with City at the top of the table, United’s form has derailed somewhat and it seems that their pre-season hopes of the title are a distant memory.

That’s not to say that they’ve been poor, because they haven’t.

Not many teams only lose three times in the opening 22 league matches yet find themselves 15 points behind the leaders, and the size of the gap is testament to just how good City have been.

Yet it’s hard to deny that there has been a spark missing at Old Trafford this season since their blistering start to the 2017-18 campaign, and a player in the mould of Sanchez could be exactly the tonic required for a mid-season boost.

There’s a distinct lack of width in the United side, something that boss Jose Mourinho has been aware of for a while after trying – and ultimately failing – with his pursuit of Ivan Perisic last year.

Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata have all played their parts in wide areas but none are fully comfortable there, and United are in need of a fully-fledged winger who possesses the talent to deliver consistently into the area for the likes of Romelu Lukaku to work with.

And in Sanchez there’s few better options around as of now.

His Premier League pedigree is anything but a secret, scoring 31 times in his last 57 appearances since the start of last season, and he can add 13 assists to his impressive record during this period.

Mourinho is on the hunt for a creative hub and the Chilean forward is just that, and despite coming in for criticism this season for his performances he’s still created 50 clear-cut chances for Arsenal, only second to Mesut Ozil.

For a point of comparison United’s most creative player this season has been Mata, crafting 31 opportunities for his teammates, and that just shows the impact Sanchez could have upon arrival.

Yet, a move for Sanchez would run far deeper than just his creativity.

He’s a player ideal for Mourinho, one that’s determined, willing to give his all until the final whistle and leave nothing behind on the pitch, and his never-say-die attitude could lift the Old Trafford dressing room no end.

It seems to be a viewpoint that is shared by those with an avid interest in United too, with ex-defender Phil Neville telling Sky Sports that it could be an ‘unbelievable’ coup for them should they pull it off.

Addressing the transfer rumours yesterday, he said:

“It’s pretty obvious he’s not going to stay at Arsenal. I think if United were going to buy him, £25m would be an absolute snip.

“United missed out on buying Ivan Perisic in the summer, and with that missed out on a winger. I think Sanchez provides the quality, the goals and the world-class ability he has got.

“I think it would be an unbelievable signing. If you look back at the big signings over the decades, [Eric] Cantona came out of the hat, [Robin] Van Persie was a surprise, and they both helped United win titles. I think this could have a similar impact. He’s got the character to play at Old Trafford.”

His point on Cantona and Van Persie is a hugely valid one, and whilst a move for Sanchez now isn’t likely to help them overhaul Manchester City this season it sets them up perfectly for next time out – and could help their Champions League push in the latter part of 2017-2018.

However, perhaps more than anything, being able to hijack Manchester City’s proposed move for him would almost give them an air of having something over their rivals in a season where Guardiola has dominated.

Should the rumours be true, and should both Manchester sides be in for Sanchez, then ultimately the Chilean’s choice of final destination will be down to his personal preference – and this would say a lot.

January is often known for being a more mundane transfer window than the summer installment but that’s certainly not the case this time around, and Manchester United could be drawing ever closer to one of the most memorable hijacks in Premier League history.

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