Getty Images

Pep Guardiola’s latest success story: John Stones

1 Comment

Every story has a beginning, middle, and end.

The beginning of this story features a bumbling fool of a defender, and an expensive one at that. The beginning of this story also features a bumbling fool of a soccer writer. That would be me.

*record scratch* You’re probably wondering how I got here. Let me explain.

The first tweet above refers to a goal Jermaine Defoe scores for Sunderland (remember them?) on the opening day of the 2016/17 season. Manchester City won the game 2-1, but it wasn’t Stones’ best moment since arriving at Manchester City just four days prior. Jack Rodwell receives the ball about 23 yards from goal, and Stones steps to close him down, leaving acres of space behind him. Bacary Sagna (remember him?) does poorly to stay with his man Defoe, but the Sunderland poacher immediately occupies the space vacated by Stones and scores on the through-ball which the England defender fails to prevent.

Mistakes like this were all too common for Stones, who cost a heaping $64 million from Everton. He was still just 21 years old at the time, and looked completely lost. He was billed as a defender who could play with the ball at his feet and thus would fit perfectly into Pep Guardiola‘s system. Man City’s own club release announcing the signing referred to him as “one of the world’s most promising centre backs” and specifically mentioned “Stones has built a reputation as a ball-playing, 21st century defender, equally adept at neutralizing opposition attacks as launching the first key pass out of the defensive third.”

None of that was evident at the start. I jumped to conclusions.


Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The middle features just two words: Pep Guardiola.

Pep Guardiola has morphed John Stones into one of the world’s best central defenders at just 24 years old. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end of this story is not yet written, but there is an outline for sure. John Stones, the bumbling 21-year-old who made countless positional mistakes and looked hopelessly lost in Pep Guardiola’s system, is now one of the world’s best central defenders. No, that’s not a hyperbole. He’s a strong Team of the Season candidate and one of the first names on the teamsheet of one of the Premier League’s best-ever constructed squads. Adding to the resume, he was a critical member of England’s World Cup squad that made the semifinals.

Case in point, his performance against Liverpool, which was fabulous. First, the obvious: Stones completed 94/99 passes, was a perfect 9-of-9 clearing the ball, won both his aerial duels, was not dispossessed once, and helped keep Roberto Firmino to a generally minimal threat, with the Brazilian’s goal only coming while he was marked by Vincent Kompany.

To dig a little deeper, here’s just one more fine-tuned reason why Pep loves Stones. This astute find from Statsbomb writer Nico Morales shows how his vision has not just improved, but taken a leap of faith.

Nico is exactly right. Stones connected with left-back Aymeric Laporte seven times in the game, all switches of play from Stones at RCB to Laporte on the left flank. That pass is vital to Manchester City as they look to break Liverpool’s press. That pass is meant to be taken away by the high positioning of the striker (in this case, as Morales points out, Salah), but Stones managed to find it anyways. In addition, Stones found Leroy Sane on the left flank three times, an even more difficult alleyway to navigate.

In addition, Stones no longer makes the positional mistakes we became so numb to his freshman year at the Etihad. Last year during their dominant title run, Manchester City conceded a league-low 27 goals through the 38 matches, and while Stones struggled that campaign with injuries, he put in nine full-90 minute performances in Premier League play, six of which finished in clean sheets.

Stones’ most notable play of the Liverpool match was a perfect encapsulation of his career path at Manchester City. After being admittedly beaten by Sadio Mane, he put enough pressure on the Liverpool winger to (together with a charging Ederson) force him into hitting the post. Stones then attempted to clear the ball by clattering it straight into Ederson’s body, looping the ball towards his own net. He then rushed back to clear the ball off the line, literally millimeters (11 of them, to be exact) from the game’s first goal.

He’s not the sexiest player on the field. In the win over Liverpool, Bernardo Silva got plenty of (deserved) plaudits for running his absolute socks off (he ran the furthest distance of any player in any Premier League match this season). Sergio Aguero scored a ridiculous(ly important) goal. Leroy Sane’s winner came from a moment of far-post ingenuity. Even Vincent Kompany was lauded for his hard work, his clearing ability, and his physical tenacity that nearly netted him a sending off. Stones, on the other hand, plods along doing the little things that help the Man City Machine continue to churn. It’s not even dirty work – which often earns recognition in its own right (see: Silva, Bernardo) – it’s just plain old work.

While many consider Raheem Sterling‘s development as Pep Guardiola’s most impressive individual coaching job at Manchester City – and there’s a good argument to be made there – it is of this writer’s belief that Guardiola’s crowning achievement thus far at City is the building of The Stones Wall. From 21-year-old project (a “poor buy” as one nameless dope put it) to 24-year-old superstar, John Stones has truly developed into one of the world’s best central defenders, and there’s still room to grow.

And for that, I owe him an apology.

USMNT’s Arriola likely will miss MLS season, six World Cup qualifiers

Paul Arriola
AP Photo/LM Otero
Leave a comment

WASHINGTON (AP) D.C. United midfielder Paul Arriola had major knee surgery Monday and likely will miss the entire Major League Soccer season and the United States’ first six qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup

The operation was to reconstruct his right anterior cruciate ligament. The team said there was no additional cartilage damage.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

The 25-year-old midfielder injured his knee Feb. 15 during D.C. United’s preseason match against Orlando in Tampa, Florida.

Arriola has been a regular starter for the U.S. national team under coach Gregg Berhalter. Arriola has five goals in 33 international appearances.

After failing to reach the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. starts qualifying for the 2022 tournament this year. The Americans have two matches each in September, October and November, then complete qualifying with two games apiece in March and September 2021.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

State of play in CONCACAF Champions League

CONCACAF Champions League
AP Photo/Carlos Gonzalez
Leave a comment

Four of five Major League Soccer clubs alive in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 are in fine shape to reach the quarterfinals after one leg.

The fifth has a tall hill to climb.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

LAFC trails Club Leon by two and did not collect an away goal in Mexico during first leg play last week.

“It’s 2-0, but we’re going to work hard,” said LAFC attacker Latif Blessing. “We’re going to prepare ourselves to win the next game. … We did good, but we want to win. It couldn’t happen that way but we’re going to prepare next game to win this game. We need to win.”

The second leg in L.A. is one of the last two matches of the round, kicking off at 10 p.m. ET Thursday just as Seattle Sounders square off with Olimpia.

The Honduran side managed a controversial comeback in the 2-2 draw with Jordan Morris-fueled Seattle last week, but the Sounders will be happy to have those two away goals and home field.

Montreal Impact has the same situation for Deportivo Saprissa’s visit at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday, while Atlanta United scored an away goal in a draw with Motagua and hosts the visitors from Honduras’ capital at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday.

That leaves us with NYCFC, who got a Heber hat trick amongst five away goals at Costa Rican side San Carlos in a 5-3 win. The second leg begins at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday at Red Bull Arena (yes, you read that correctly).

Elsewhere, Liga MX sides don’t have it much better. Cruz Azul leads Portmore 2-1 heading back to Mexico, while Club America scored an away goal in a draw with Comunicaciones.

Finally, Tigres UANL trails 2-1 after one leg with Alianza in El Salvador.

CCL second leg schedule
all times ET

Atlanta United v. Motagua (1-1) — 8 p.m. Tuesday
Cruz Azul v. Portmore United (2-1) — 10 p.m. Tuesday
NYCFC v. San Carlos (5-3) — 6 p.m. Wednesday
Montreal Impact v. Deportivo Saprissa (2-2) — 8 p.m. Wednesday
Tigres UANL v. Alianza (1-2) — 8 p.m. Wednesday
Club America v. Comunicaciones (1-1) — 10 p.m. Wednesday
Seattle Sounders v. Olimpia (2-2) — 10 p.m. Thursday
LAFC v Leon (0-2) — 10 p.m. Thursday

Eleven to go: Ranking obstacles on Liverpool’s unbeaten path

Leave a comment

Liverpool has won all five of its matches since the last time we evaluated its path to an unbeaten Premier League season.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Those matches were ranked 14th, 12th, 11th, 10th, and 4th on our first rankings of obstacles to immortality, so very little of the heavy lifting has been conducted.

Let’s get something out of the way: If Liverpool is unable to overturn their first leg deficit against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, you can probably etch that zero in the league loss column into stone.

That said, many expect the Reds to overcome that 1-0 disadvantage from Madrid, so here’s where we slot the difficulties moving forward.

Unranked — Crystal Palace at home (March 21) and Brighton away (April 18) — Both of these dates are very easy on the eyes, but will be moved if Liverpool is alive in the FA Cup.

9. Newcastle away, time TBD May 17 — We’re now calling this the easiest date left. Klopp’s men aren’t going to lose an unbeaten season at the altar just because Steve Bruce bunkers down. St. James’ Park is a hassle, but

8. Watford away, 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday Klopp probably feels like he’s already playing with house money in the FA Cup, so there’s no reason to think he’ll hand any priority at all to the following FA Cup meeting with Chelsea.

7. Bournemouth home, 7:30 a.m. ET March 7 Situated between Chelsea in the FA Cup and the home UCL second leg versus Atleti, it’s not easy…  but the Cherries have given us less reason to believe they’ll threaten the Reds than any other team besides Newcastle.

6. Aston Villa home, 11:30 a.m. ET April 12Dean Smith‘s desperate Villans will have Villa Park rocking before Liverpool’s possible UCL quarterfinals 2nd leg days later.

5. Burnley home, 7:30 a.m. ET April 25 — Taking place just before a possible UCL quarterfinal first leg, Burnley will try to trouble the Reds in a similar manner to West Ham.

4. Chelsea home, time TBD May 9 — Both the Blues and Reds could be coming off UCL semifinal second legs. Don’t forget that Chelsea took the Reds to the wire in the UEFA Super Cup despite it being very early in Frank Lampard‘s tenure.

3. Arsenal away, time TBD May 2 — Both sides may be days away from needing a result to qualify for the UCL or UEL final.

2. Everton away, 4 p.m. ET March 16 — This may as well be the only match left on the Toffees’ docket that matters more than another, as Carlo Ancelotti and his men know the message they could send regarding the building up of Everton.

Not only that, but Everton has nothing else left to circle, no other competitions, nothing.

1. Man City away, 11:30 a.m. ET April 5 — Taking place 3-4 days before the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals and on the heels of an international break, it’s the lone date on the calendar that Liverpool won’t be heavy favorites to win.

Champions League: Chelsea, Napoli aim to slow Lewandowski, Messi

UEFA Champions League preview
Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Four of the most dangerous attacks in Europe begin their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

For Chelsea that means trying to find a way to limit the damage of away goals when Bayern Munich visits Stamford Bridge.

Of course, that means trying to slow lethal Robert Lewandowski. The 31-year-old Polish striker has scored 38 times in 32 appearances this season.

Here’s Frank Lampard, via Football.London:

Form of his life means something special with Lewandowski because of how well he’s been consistently in Europe for the last, how many years, I don’t know,” Lampard said. “Everything about him, from a distance, from afar, is just top class. Having the opportunity to watch a lot of Bayern in build-up to this game, that shines through. Of course, he’s going to be a huge threat. He’s not the only threat but he is a spearhead.”

Lampard points to the Blues work without the ball and away from it that will determine whether they can limit Lewandowski and Bayern.

“We traveled to Ajax and had a fantastic game off the ball,” he said. “We’ve had games like that this year in the league as well. But the levels have to go up.”

The Blues won’t have Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and N’Golo Kante, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek is finally available after a long injury absence. Pedro may play.

[ MORE: JPW’s score predictions ]

Tuesday’s other first leg sees Napoli hosting Barcelona, which means Gennaro Gattuso trying to find a way to cool down Lionel Messi.

The world’s top player scored four goals at the weekend and had six assists in his three previous La Liga outings.

Another player who’s helped Barcelona reclaim the league lead will be critical to controlling the midfield against Napoli, and that’s Frenkie de Jong.

The 22-year-old has had fits and starts at Barca, especially this month. He admits that he’s had an odd time adjusting to Messi, the teammate, though it hasn’t been part of the problem. From FCBarcelona.com:

“When I began training with him it was strange, because when I was 12, still in secondary school, I used to watch a lot of football. He was already the best in the world. He won the Ballon d’Or back then, so I was a fan, or whatever you want to call it.”

Napoli boss Gattuso was a bit more effusive when addressing Messi, via Football.Espana:

“I have read whether to make a cage or not, but we need the collective game to combat someone like him, and it is not just him,” Gattuso said. “He is the best in the world, for how he has lived his entire career. He is always perfect, never a misplaced word, he is an example for everyone. He does things that I only see on the PlayStation. He has an incredible quality and for years he has been the best of all-time.”

Both matches kick off at 3 p.m. ET Tuesday.