How can Everton's John Stones become a success at Manchester City?
A curious aspect of football folklore is the idea that certain clubs have ‘cursed’ positions, with a successful solution to a consistent problem proving elusive despite their best efforts.
Liverpool have struggled to find a convincing left-back for well over a decade. Arsenal’s no. 9 shirt has been occupied by the likes of Francis Jeffers, Julio Baptista and Park Chu-Young in the past, none of whom came close to justifying wearing what is an important shirt number.
Man City have had a similar issue when it comes to buying centre-backs, with Stefan Savic, Matija Nastasic, Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi all figures of derision since arriving in England. Martin Demichelis and Joleon Lescott had solid spells alongside Vincent Kompany in title-winning campaigns, yet neither would be regarded as a resounding success.
It seems that John Stones will be the next arrival in this department, with Pep Guardiola identifying the Everton man as the player to build his backline around.
City are far from alone in facing criticism for the quality of their defending, or lack thereof. Many have postulated the theory that defending is a dying art, with some even highlighting Stones as the perfect example of misplaced priorities. Eventually, the penny must drop with the critics that teams’ who are poor defensively are so due to collective problems of organisation and tactical balance.
I refuse to believe that Savic, Nastasic, Mangala and especially Otamendi are all poor defenders, but rather were thrown into situations that left them exposed. Good defensive units accentuate their defenders’ strengths and cover their weaknesses – too often City have done the complete opposite.
So, if Stones is to thrive at City, he needs to play within a defensive system that suits him rather more than it has previous incumbents of his position. Guardiola has employed a variety of defensive approaches in his coaching career to date, and many anticipate that the Catalan is the ideal mentor for the gifted Stones, giving him the license to play out from the back in typical style. This excellent Daniel Storey article discussed the disparity between the idea of what Stones can be and the reality of what he currently is.
That reality is that Stones is an extremely gifted footballer, though still rather callow as a defender. The phrase ‘ball-playing defender’ clings to Stones like a clam to a rock, but Guardiola will be keen to channel his talents in a very specific way.
Guardiola’s teams are exciting and expressive, but he is quite prescriptive in his coaching methods, giving players very clear instructions on how he wants the ball to be circulated. In recent quotes about Fernandinho playing as a defender, the former Barcelona manager stressed the importance of his defenders playing ‘good passes’.
This is the type of ‘playing out from the back’ he will want from Stones; penetrative passes that find City’s midfielders between the lines and take opponents out of the game. Too often, Stones ‘playing out from the back’ has involved meretricious trickery such as this, which doesn’t really contribute to the team building attacks.
Compare and contrast with this pass from Laurent Koscielny, which takes City’s midfield pieces off the chessboard with one pass. So Stones will need channel his abilities in a more constructive way, and Guardiola will not tolerate him deviating from his instructions.
There is also the need for greater concentration and, at times, a slightly more risk-averse approach. Stones made more errors leading to goals than any other Premier League defender last season. Some believed he was the subject of unfair scrutiny, playing as he was in an Everton team that was drifting like a barge towards the end of last season. However, if his mistakes were analysed to an undue extent at Goodison Park, they will be poured over endlessly at a club of City’s stature.
Guardiola’s Barcelona and Bayern sides were utterly dominant in most matches, dominating territory and possession in the vast majority of matches. It remains to be seen if he can recreate this to the same extent at City, and Stones might have to defend more frequently than for instance, Javier Mascherano or Jerome Boateng had to.
Pep trusts his defenders to play in one on one situations; his teams press from the front and defenders are expected to be comfortable high up the pitch. Stones has shown the mobility and aptitude to deal with this, but has a great deal to prove if he is to justify what will be a sizeable transfer fee.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Dailong Li