Sunday’s 3-0 win at Huddersfield Town did not see Manchester City at its best, and the match didn’t require it, but manager Pep Guardiola was visibly perturbed by his side’s showing at the John Smith’s Stadium.
City led 1-0 at the break on a deflected Danilo strike but came to life with an improved second frame that saw them score in the 54th and 56th minutes.
They got what they earned, says Guardiola. That’s not a compliment. From the BBC:
“The way we played we didn’t deserve more than three goals. We will improve in the future. We have to demand more from ourselves in every game and do our best, but sometimes it’s difficult. They defended deep and man to man.
“What we have done so far has been incredible, in the league and the Carabao Cup. We have an incredible number of points. But this game can teach us and show what we have to do to improve.”
Opening scorer Danilo admitted that City didn’t have the right intensity in the first half, while Leroy Sane said Pep put them right at halftime.
“He always tries to give us the solution and he did it again,” said Sane, who had a goal and an assist. “I think everyone could see in the second half it was much better.”
City starts a three-match week on Wednesday with the second leg of the League Cup semifinal at Burton Albion (City leads 9-0). It’s home to Burnley in the FA Cup on Saturday before visiting Newcastle on Jan. 29.
There is no debate that the club has been markedly better with the 33-year-old in the center of the park, with City losing both of its Premier League matches that the Brazilian missed this season (Palace and Leicester City back-to-back).
“As many things as he can do, the better. I know it is not easy to find one player who can do everything. [You have to deal with] the price, the agents and the club if you want to buy the players so we will see.”
But how long can he continue to thrive in that role? Certainly not too much longer if City can’t give him some relief. That’s no indictment on the player, rather a 33-year-old who plays with such physicality and piles up minutes across all competitions.
For the first time since Pep Guardiola‘s first season at Manchester City, the club are looking up in the standings.
With Man City’s comfortable 3-0 win over 10-man Wolverhampton Wanderers, Guardiola’s side are now just four points back of Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool. With such a tight race, one could forgive some Man City players of keeping an eye on Liverpool’s results while trying to keep winning their own. Guardiola, however, urged his side on Monday evening to focus on themselves.
“We cannot play Liverpool so we can’t do anything about them – all we can do is win our games,” Guardiola told reporters. “We can control what we do and that’s being there (challenging for the title) but if we won’t win, then they will be Champions and I will congratulate Jurgen. That’s why we have to win. We have incredible numbers after what we did last season.
“I don’t have a crystal ball to know (how many points Man City will need). I said to the players: don’t watch the calendar for the Liverpool games because when that happens, you get distracted and lose games. They are one team and have done better so far but we have to be there until the end.”
Interestingly enough, both teams have a decent run of fixtures ahead. Liverpool has Crystal Palace and Leicester City at home before traveling to West Ham, while Manchester City visits Huddersfield Town before cup fixtures against Burton Albion and Burnley. However, come February, the tough fixtures arrive. Liverpool has a pair of matches in the UEFA Champions League against Bayern Munich as well as facing Manchester United, Watford away and then Everton in the first weekend of March. For Man City, it faces Arsenal, Chelsea, and two matches against Schalke all in a row to start February, which will be a difficult run.
The Premier League title wasn’t decided in December, but it could be within the next 30 days, depending on how each club manages that stretch.
League Cup semi preview: Just how stunning an upset?
Burton Albion’s only defeat of a Premier League team this season is a 2-1 take down of visiting Burnley, and all five of their League Cup wins have come by single goals.
And while City may have lost to Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup last season, that was not in a round on the precipice of a final.
Clough, no stranger to the upper reaches of competition, puts its plainly. From The Telegraph:
“It’s almost a bye to the final for City. I don’t think we can go into it thinking we’ve got a fighting chance of winning it,” he says, deadly serious. “If we beat them over two legs, it will be the biggest shock of all time. I don’t know what Pep’s thinking will be but I would imagine it will be to make the second leg irrelevant. But we’ve got to try and do the opposite to that and try to retain a glimmer of hope.”
What is Pep thinking, then (Let’s keep up the thinking theme)?
“Winning is important,” he said. “The Carabao Cup is the more local competition. Everybody is happy to win and nobody is sad if they go out in the competition. We are here in the semi-final and we want to win.”
Burton beating Man City over two legs would be on par with Leicester City winning the Premier League. Is that too bold to say?
*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.
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.
The line from Stones to Laporte is pretty telling. Salah did somewhat of a bad job shutting off the pass behind him and Stones is at least part god. https://t.co/zeXz6novwR
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.