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.
Manchester City close in on title after brushing aside feeble Stoke City
Manchester City have one hand on the Premier League title after victory on Monday night.
So that answers that question then – Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team can handle a dark, cold and wet mid-week fixture against Stoke City at the Bet365 Stadium.
Not that the result of this game was ever in doubt.
Manchester City are undoubtedly one of the best club sides in the world at this present moment in time and arrived in ‘The Potteries’ 13 points clear at the top of the Premier League table.
It was little surprise to see them nonchalantly brush aside Stoke on Monday evening courtesy of two goals from David Silva and, in the process, increase their lead over second-placed Manchester United to 16 points.
City now require just three more wins to confirm the title and are on course to break the 100-point mark.
Guardiola’s side were dominant at the Bet365 Stadium and continued to produce the breath-taking football that has characterised their season. It is the perfect mixture of pace, precision and technique and Stoke quite simply did not possess the quality, confidence or character to muster a challenge.
This was procession more than it was a contest and Manchester City were not required to get out of first gear.
A trip to ‘The Potteries’ used to spark fear into the hearts of opposing players – facing a Stoke team that was characterised by discipline, hard-work and an up-and-at-‘em approach that was backed by a passionate home crowd – but on Monday night all of the above were lacking. The players were lethargic on the pitch and the home supporters were apathetic in the stands.
Paul Lambert and his side appeared content to lose the game as long as the scoreline was kept respectable and it was clear from the first whistle that the Potters were in damage limitation mode.
Stoke failed to muster a shot on target in the entire game and there was no purpose, urgency or direction to their play. They offered little defensively either. There was no attempt to press the visitors or ruffle their feathers, demonstrated by the fact that only Joe Allen picked up a yellow card, and the sight of Manchester City stroking the ball around unopposed at walking pace will have been a demoralising sight for the locals.
Yes, you have to acknowledge that Manchester City are good, very good in fact, but the way that the hosts simply rolled over without a fight was indicative of a campaign that will possibly result in their relegation.
Wigan Athletic, Burnley and Basel have all demonstrated since Christmas that Guardiola’s side are far from invincible, yet the Potters opted to wave the white flag from the onset.
Lambert certainly has a task on his hands at the Bet365 Stadium if he is to guide the club to safety. A predictable loss to the champions-elect will not define their future, but the upcoming home fixture against Everton on Saturday certainly will. Stoke supporters can only hope that their team shows more character, fight and direction at the weekend than they did on Monday.
For Manchester City, the Pep Guardiola football revolution continues to roll on. The focus now for City will be to wrap up the Premier League title as soon as possible so that additional emphasis can be placed on progressing to the latter stages of the Champions League.
Beyond this season, the future continues to look bright.
Guardiola’s squad consist primarily of young starlets or players that are in their mid-late twenties and are at or just entering, the peak of their powers.
Raheem Sterling (23), Leroy Sane (22), Bernardo Silva (23), Gabriel Jesus (20), John Stones (23) and Ederson (24) are all under the age of 24 whilst Kevin De Bruyne (26), Kyle Walker (27) and Sergio Aguero (29) have yet to hit their thirties.
The Premier League must now face up to the prospect that the current crop of Manchester City players, under the guidance of one of the best coaches of the modern era, have the potential to dominate the domestic scene for the foreseeable future.
If the runaway train is to be stopped, teams will have to demonstrate a much more positive attitude and a desire to compete than that shown in the performance by Paul Lambert and his players on Monday evening.
Manchester City 1-0 Chelsea: Three talking points from the Etihad
Manchester City managed to beat Chelsea for the second time this season as they continue their march to the Premier League title. The contest was far from entertaining, as the visitors showed no interest in playing football and instead to soak in pressure.
Pep Guardiola’s team didn’t have to get out of second gear and it was a more comfortable victory than they would have been expecting. The Citizens are now 18 points clear at the top of the table and remain on target for 100 points, which would be a superb achievement.
Meanwhile, Chelsea sit outside of the Champions League places and are now five points behind Tottenham in fourth position. They will need a near perfect end to the season if they are to avoid missing out on qualification for next season’s competition. Here are three talking points from the Etihad Stadium…
David Silva showed his class
The 32-year-old has been at Manchester City for the majority of their journey from Premier League also-rans to elite super club and he remains a crucial player for them under Pep Guardiola.
If he had been in the team for the entire campaign, he would be running Kevin de Bruyne close for the PFA Player of the Year award. He is a classy operator who seems to get better with age.
He got the important assist for the winning goal with a superb piece of play and that is becoming par for the course for the Spanish international. Silva completed 95% of his passes and made three key passes during the contest. Meanwhile, he was very good out of possession as he made three ball recoveries.
It has been incredible to watch Pep Guardiola get all of his attacking talent on the pitch at one time, but the improvement of both Silva and De Bruyne off the ball has helped achieve that.
They are now complete midfielders and capable of thriving in both halves of the pitch. The midfielder is a club legend and supporters will be hoping that he has a few years left in him.
Antonio Conte continues to make puzzling decisions
Last season, the Italian was lauded every week as his side won the league title comfortably, but he has failed to follow it up with a good second campaign. There have been a lot of problems for Chelsea this season including recruitment, tactics and player performance.
They have been reliant on Eden Hazard and as the campaign has progressed, the team have lost their intensity, which suggests they no longer believe in Conte.
Their 3-4-2-1 formation was revolutionary, but they have moved away from it frequently this season and haven’t been able to settle on a first eleven. That was one of Chelsea’s strengths last season. Gary Cahill and David Luiz have been sidelined, while Alvaro Morata has failed to replace Diego Costa sufficiently.
On Sunday, Conte chose to field Hazard as a lone frontman, but he struggled to impact the game in that role. He is best when having space in front of him to run into and he didn’t have that against Manchester City.
The Belgian international was isolated and touched the ball only 31 times. It was a tactical error and one that blunted Chelsea’s attack before a ball was kicked.
Ilkay Gundogan is flourishing in the middle of the park for Manchester City
The former Borussia Dortmund midfielder has had his problems since arriving in the Premier League.
He has suffered a few injuries and that has seen him struggle to secure a regular starting berth, but he has featured prominently in recent weeks and is perfect for the system. Gundogen recycles possession effectively and that is required, especially when the opposition team sits deep.
Gundogen touched the ball more than any other player on the pitch with 181 touches and was very good at distributing the ball quickly. He finished the match with a 96% pass success rate, which shows his role.
He wasn’t taking any risks and he didn’t have to. City have a lot of attacking talent and the German international isn’t required to try risky passes to influence the game.
Although Chelsea didn’t get on the ball much, Gundogen broke up the play when required with four ball recoveries. Fernandinho’s absence could allow the 27-year-old to secure the place on a permanent basis and he does offer more in the role, especially in possession. It was a strong performance and one of the standouts in a dull affair.
Arsenal 0-3 Manchester City: Three talking points from the Emirates
Jake Jackman brings us three talking points from the Emirates Stadium as a Leroy Sane masterclass saw Manchester City overcome Arsenal for the second time this week.
Manchester City ran out comfortable 3-0 winners against Arsenal for the second time in less than a week, further underlining the problems at the Emirates Stadium.
These performances are becoming too common for the Gunners that they can no longer be seen as embarrassing. They are expected in matches against the top six. Pep Guardiola’s team were far superior in every department and excellent value for the three points.
There are now 30 points separating Arsenal from Manchester City in the league table. To put that into context, the Gunners are close to the relegation zone than they are the title. For a team that has ambitions to challenge for major honours, that is a worrying statistic.
Here are three talking points from the Emirates Stadium…
Arsene Wenger needs to leave
This has been a raging debate within the Arsenal fan-base for a number of seasons. He had more supporters than haters when he was regularly leading the Gunners to top-four finishes, but they are now ten points below the Champions League places. It is difficult to see them qualifying for the competition and their failure is no longer a surprise.
Arsenal have been regressing as a club since their last league title win in 2004 and they are now the 6th best club in the country. They are regularly outperformed by local rivals Tottenham and until Arsene Wenger leaves, their decline will only continue. He has been left behind by the game and he no longer commands respect in the dressing room.
It is easy to target the lack of fight and desire in the squad, but they are a problem. Players were once again going through the motions after the third Manchester City goal and showed no interest in trying to get back into the game.
If there isn’t a managerial change this summer, it will be another huge mistake by the board.
Leroy Sane deserves to be talked about as one of the best in the league
The young German winger has been taken on as a project by Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. The Spanish manager was quick to bring Sane to the club and clearly sees huge potential in him. He was initially used in a squad role but has since emerged as a key first team player and this could have been his coming of age performance.
The 22-year-old was unplayable at times when running with the ball and his dynamism is a joy to watch. He completed six dribbles during the match.
For the first goal, he beat a couple of Arsenal defenders before playing the ball to Bernardo Silva to finish the move. It wasn’t a straightforward finish, but the goal was down to the individual flair of Sane.
After impressing with his dribbling ability, Sane scored a well-earned goal to put the result beyond doubt. It won’t be remembered as a classic, but it was good movement to get into the goal-scoring position.
Guardiola will be pleased with the winger’s distribution considering he only misplaced two of 35 total passes. If he can consistently perform to this level, he will be talked about as one of the best players in the Premier League.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hasn’t added anything to this Arsenal team
It is early days and it may be too soon to be overly critical of Aubameyang, but he has been totally anonymous in the majority of his matches in a Gunners’ shirt.
The 28-year-old is renowned for having a lot of pace and that was his most feared attribute during his time at Borussia Dortmund. However, at Arsenal, he looks uninterested and isn’t making the runs in behind that made him dangerous in the Bundesliga.
His pass success rate shows how he is struggling to adapt to the Premier League. Aubameyang completed only 55% of his passes. In addition to this, he has failed to win a single aerial duel and isn’t concerned about working hard for the team defensively. He is a passenger in matches and hasn’t offered an upgrade on Alexandre Lacazette.
Aubameyang’s short career at the Emirates Stadium was symbolised best by his penalty miss. It was encouraging that he had the confidence to take the responsibility, but his kick was tame and he made it easy for Ederson. Given his price-tag and reputation, he needs to be offering a lot more to the Arsenal attack.
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