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Pep Guardiola’s latest success story: John Stones

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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.

State of play in CONCACAF Nations League

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Well, well, well…

Canada’s controlling 2-0 defeat of the USMNT on Tuesday adding some intrigue to the final two match days of the CONCACAF Nations League next month

[ USMNT-CANADA: Time for change? | Player ratings ]

Mexico nearly provided another shock at Azteca thanks to a relative inability to break down Panama, but young stunner Jose Juan Macias scored for the fourth time in three caps to lead El Tri to a 3-1 win on the night.

Roberto Alvarado saw his 28th minute goal canceled out by pre-halftime own goal, and Mexico had better than 75 percent possession when Macias bagged his winner. Rodolfo Pizarro rounded out the scoring in stoppage time.

Here’s where we sit in the battle for four semifinal spots. The semifinals and finals will be staged in June.

Group A

Canada’s defeat of the USMNT means the Yanks need to make the most of the Canucks visit to the Orlando next month and smash Cuba in the Cayman Islands. Overall goal difference is the second tie breaker, and the Yanks are four behind Canada. A two-goal win in Florida would mean the Yanks would simply need a victory over Cuba to advance to the semifinals. Canada advances with a draw against the U.S., while Cuba has already be relegated to League B.

Group B

Mexico now has six points to Panama’s three and Bermuda’s three. El Tri will visit Panama next and can clinch a spot in the semifinals with a draw or better. Even if Panama beats Mexico, Tata Martino’s men would need to get nothing from Bermuda at Azteca to fail to make the semifinals. Bermuda needs Panama to beat Mexico before getting a blowout win at Azteca. Not looking good.

Group C

Honduras is onto the semifinals. Whether Martinique or Trinidad and Tobago, both on two points, can avoid relegation by getting a superior result against Honduras in November. Honduras heads to Martinique before hosting T&T.

Group D

Curacao had five points compared to its rivals two each and can advance to the semifinals with a home defeat of Costa Rica. If Los Ticos claims the three points, then it will have at least a two-goal advantage on Haiti heading into a home finale.

Three things from ugly USMNT loss in Canada

(Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
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We were warned after Couva that perhaps, somehow, the United States men’s national team still had some ways to go before really hitting rock bottom.

It seemed absurd, but after 10 months of the Gregg Berhalter era, which followed the least interesting manager search of all-time, perhaps the warning was needed and should’ve been heeded.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT had no answers and no options on Tuesday in Canada, showing no urgency and getting bossed off the pitch against a team which may not qualify for the Hex.

Time for a change? It’s not insane to consider it. The team Berhalter rolled out, with several players who aren’t even standouts in MLS, was inept in Ontario.

Either the plan or players the problem, and both point one way

Canada’s John Herdman and his desperate team were ready for a fight, and the visitors apparently thought their talent and reputation would win the day.

Nuh-uh.

The book on Canada was electric attackers and suspect defense, so what did Gregg Berhalter spring for his opening salvo? No pressing on the back line and two plodding center backs. Tim Ream could work with an athlete like Matt Miazga. Aaron Long, too, but Berhalter put both players together (Long certainly grew into the game).

The result was that Alphonso Davies was shifted mainly to the side of the field with Daniel Lovitz, and man did he run wild.

So did Canada’s midfield who out-worked the Yanks up-and-down the center of the park. It was sad, and littered the match with doubt heading into the break.

Granted the U.S. is short several injured players and lost Jozy Altidore just before the international break, but Berhalter had no answers on his bench, or at least couldn’t manufacture one.

And that’s a huge part of the issue here. If you don’t have any sugar, might wanna prepare something other than cookies.

He removed Christian Pulisic at the hour mark, who had been poor and reportedly sick (see below) but still represents the best playmaker in his pool. Aside from the Chelsea man’s missed 1v1 duel with Borjan, there were no real attacking moments.

This was so bad, and absolutely according to plan by Herdman. No, not Tata Martino this time… John Herdman.

There is every reason to doubt Berhalter right now, and just as many to think that U.S. Soccer hierarchy wouldn’t consider remedying the situation on account of pride.

Given the way national team soccer works, it would not be off-color if the federation pulled the chute on Berhalter. The only possible excuse is injury, but Berhalter knew what he had in this camp and still rolled this plan out there in Toronto.

Pulisic frustrated, off-color, sick, and subbed?

Christian Pulisic didn’t have to do much in Friday’s demolition of Cuba, and he couldn’t do much of anything on Tuesday when asked to carry the team.

The Yanks were absolutely bamboozled in the first half which often had the match asking Pulisic to run wild once the ball actually found its way to him.

But he was dispossessed too often in any event, and missed a necessary goal when Jordan Morris sent him alone 1v1 with Milan Borjan. Yeah, that’s a Champions League goalkeeper with Milan Borjan, but this is the pride and joy of the program and it’s best product maybe ever.

Still, for Berhalter to pull him after 60 minutes begs the question of whether there’s an injury here. If not, well, there are a lot more questions than answers.

EDIT: Berhalter said after the game that Pulisic had been struggling with flu-like symptoms.

Davies roars, Steffen saves USMNT from blowout

While the Yanks’ best players wasn’t in rhythm, Canada’s was borderline symphonic.

Former Vancouver Whitecaps phenom and current Bayern Munich youngster Alphonso Davies was a problem for the Americans from Moment No. 1, and the only thing that could slow him was a 53rd minute leg injury.

Davies had the U.S. back line on its toes all night, and cooked Tim Ream early in the match before doing the same to Aaron Long on a play the Red Bulls man did very well to recover and slide to safety.

Fortunately for Gregg Berhalter, Zack Steffen is used to being put in bad positions due to his starring stint on loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf. The goalkeeper made a phenomenal 1v1 stop on Davies in the first half and was often forced to command his box under duress.

USMNT player ratings from a dismal night in Toronto

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Oh no.

The United States men’s national team had its worst performance since, well, last month.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

Were there bright spots? Well, at least one.

Let’s dig into an ugly 2-0 loss to the Canadians in Toronto.


Starting XI

Zack Steffen — 8 — Couldn’t do much on the goal, and was the only reason this wasn’t a blowout.

Daniel Lovitz — 5 — Couple of nice slide tackles. Steady enough on a bad day.

Tim Ream — 4 — Slipshod after two-straight notably good caps.

Aaron Long — 4 — Some really good moments and joined Steffen in saving the day despite a few glaring errors, and almost made amends for Yedlin’s awful effort on the goal. That said, out to lunch on Cavallini’s second.

DeAndre Yedlin (Off 73′) — 3 — Another unforgivable lack of attention and intensity on a conceded goal at the back post from Yedlin. Really, really poor.

Michael Bradley — 4 — Poor on the opening goal. Industrious but a step slow on the evening. Not what we expected from TFC’s captain at BMO Field.

Weston McKennie  — 3 — Left all his momentum somewhere between Friday and here. A step back and one that begs if he knew the plan.

Cristian Roldan (Off 73′) — 3 — An awful giveaway would’ve put the Yanks down 1-0 if not for Steffen’s heroics. Not on the level.

Christian Pulisic (Off 60′)  — 4 — Maybe his worst day in a U.S. shirt, bodied up often before missing a point blank chance to give the U.S. a lead. Berhalter said after the game that the player was suffering from the flu, so he gets an extra point for gutting it out.

Jordan Morris — 6 — One of the few bright spots in attack, should’ve had an assist on Pulisic’s missed xG.

Josh Sargent (Off 73′)  — 5 — Industrious but on an island.

Substitutions

Paul Arriola (On 60′) — 6 — Made some decent plays but isn’t a game breaker and didn’t have an outlet for his efforts.

Gyasi Zardes (On 73′) — N/A — This was the time to bring him on, hoping his athleticism and work rate could provide something that was missing.

Nick Lima (On 73′) — N/A — Deserves to start over either full back.

Disheveled USMNT out-muscled by Canada

Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Gregg Berhalter’s doubters found a lot of fuel for their fire as the United States men’s national team was out-worked, out-thought, and out-played in an embarrassing first loss to Canada in over 30 years.

Alphonso Davies and Lucas Cavallini scored for the Canadians in a 2-0 win at BMO Field in Toronto, as Christian Pulisic was removed after 60 minutes.

The Canadians now hold the keys to the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals after improving to 3-0 on the campaign to the Yanks 1-1.

[ MORE: Time for a change? | Player ratings ]

Mark-Anthony Kaye lasted less than 10 minutes with a hamstring injury as Canada was forced into subbing one of its top midfielders early in the fray.

And Davies was all over the U.S., and could’ve had a breakaway were it not for a ridiculously poor offside flag when Ream tried to play him offside.

Davies forced Steffen into a save on a bounding shot in the 12th minute. He then cooked Tim Ream but was stifled by Long.

That’s when Cristian Roldan made an unfathomable back pass to Davies, only to be bailed out by Steffen and then Davies pushing the rebound wide of the far post.

The U.S. finally got pressure on goal in the 18th minute as Pulisic set up Jordan Morris for a left-footed shot that was diverted for a corner kick.

Pulisic had two chances in the last 15 minutes of the half, but both didn’t reach the keeper.

The second half saw some early promise but it became property of the hosts when Davies tore down the left of the pitch following a sleepy pass reception from Morris. Davies turned two defenders but one of them, Long, recovered to make a fine last ditch sliding tackle.

Jonathan David should’ve made it 1-0 as Richie Laryea fed the Gent man, who had taken advantage of Long but couldn’t get the ball inside the near post.

At the other end, Morris fed Pulisic for a point blank chance but the out-of-form Chelsea man rifled a shot right at Milan Borjan.

Long grew into the game and made another fine intervention when Davies was sprung down the right at the hour mark.

Berhalter then took off a sick Pulisic for Arriola, and the Chelsea man was visibly emotional on the bench.

There wasn’t much time to stew on that, because Canada scored.

Bradley bungled a ball in his own third and Ream couldn’t get purchase on his clearance. Canada sent the ball to the back post, where Yedlin was absent for another lazy concession in a U.S. shirt.

Morris headed a Yedlin cross to Borjan in the 72nd, but Canada right back at it when Long misjudged a lost 50/50 ball from Ream and Steffen made an outstanding save on David.

Cavallini put the game to bed when Ream and Long made a pair of hesitant plays in the U.S. third.