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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.

Columbus Crew hires former Portland boss Caleb Porter

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Caleb Porter has been hired as the 8th head coach in Columbus Crew history, the club announced on Friday, while also unveiling Tim Bezbatchenko as team president.

Porter has been out of a job since he departed the Portland Timbers in late 2017 after a disappointing playoff exit in the semifinals followed a season that saw Portland earn the top spot in the West. The 43-year-old has an MLS Cup victory to his name, coming in 2015 with the Timbers in which he defeated the Crew in the finals.

Porter replaces Gregg Berhalter who left Columbus after five seasons to become head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team.

“I am honored to join Columbus Crew SC, a club with a rich history in Major League Soccer and a city with great appreciation for its beloved club dating back to 1996,” Porter said. The statement is a poignant one that alludes to the club remaining in Columbus after a tumultuous period that featured speculation the team would move to Austin, TX before the Haslam family swooped in to purchase the club and keep it in Ohio. There were reports that Porter had conversations with the LA Galaxy before ultimately deciding to take over at Columbus.

“Caleb has been a proven winner every place he has coached and like Tim won an MLS Cup in 2015,” the Crew SC Investor-Operator group said in the club release. “He has a deep understanding of how to build formidable and successful programs and is well respected for his soccer acumen and development of players. With Tim and Caleb sharing some Ohio roots, we feel they are the perfect fit as we move into a new era of Crew soccer.”

Porter’s Ohio connection stems from his six years in charge of the Akron Zips program, which he led from 2006-2012 before joining the USMNT youth coaching ranks.

New president Tim Bezbatchenko comes over from Toronto FC where he built a squad that challenged for the top spot in the East before winning the MLS Cup in 2017. He signed Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore at Toronto, the players who provided the backbone of the title contending squads.

Pulisic Transfer: What’s the significance?

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With the stroke of a pen, Christian Pulisic made history, becoming the most-expensive American soccer player in history.

Pulisic’s $73 million move from Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea absolutely smashed the old transfer fee record for an American. In 2017, Wolfsburg paid Hertha Berlin around $22 million to sign centerback John-Anthony Brooks. Four years prior, Sunderland paid around $13 million to sign Jozy Altidore from AZ Alkmaar.

For Chelsea alone, it’s the club’s third-highest transfer fee paid after goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga ($91 million) and Alvaro Morata ($75 million).

Chelsea host Southampton on Wednesday (Watch live, 2:45 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at Stamford Bridge and our Premier League analysts will be breaking down Pulisic’s move.

While the transfer market has seemingly gone bananas since Neymar’s $263 million transfer to Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea clearly see a future star in the making in Pulisic, and surely a player that can lead their marketing campaigns in the U.S. for many years to come. In becoming the most expensive American transfer, Pulisic has placed a target on his back, one that he’ll have to overcome, especially after an up-and-down season at Dortmund.

It will be an incredible challenge for Pulisic in England. The physical league has been known to wear down some players coming in from abroad, and the tabloid newspapers are quick to turn on players after a bad performance or two, with some delighting in cutting a player down. In addition, Maurizio Sarri has stuck with his starting XI for most of the year, and it’s unclear exactly who Pulisic would push out of the first eleven. Only if Eden Hazard makes a long-rumored move to Real Madrid does this move really make sense in the short-term.

However, the move comes at a great time for both Dortmund, Chelsea, and Pulisic. Dortmund receives a very large transfer fee that it can invest in improving the squad further or providing raises and Chelsea beats out other suitors to an exciting attacking prospect. Meanwhile, Pulisic has his future settled for the next five seasons in London, starting in the summer. One has to wonder though whether the fee would be even bigger if the U.S. Men’s National Team had made the 2018 World Cup, and Pulisic had a chance once more to star on the world’s stage.

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Pulisic’s move is likely to also be a boon to young American players who are either already in Europe, playing in MLS, or considering their options. Pulisic went from unknown on the world stage to a multi-million dollar star within the space of a few years, and we could see other Americans following in his footsteps, hoping to strike gold as he’s done. For all of his misgivings, former USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s insistence on getting his young squad to play their club matches in Europe was the right move, as we’ve seen with Pulisic’s growth in Dortmund’s academy.

Perhaps Weston McKennie, Josh Sargent or Timothey Weah could be in line for big money moves in the next year or two, should they continue to improve and perform.

On Wednesday, Pulisic set the marker down of what could be for an American. We’ll see how many follow and reach that mark, if not overtake it.

US international Lynden Gooch signs Sunderland extension

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USMNT international Lynden Gooch has signed a long-term extension with current club Sunderland, keeping him at the Stadium of Light through the summer of 2022, the club has announced.

The 23-year-old Santa Cruz product debuted for Sunderland in 2016 when the club was in the Premier League, earning four starts and 19 appearances before an ankle injury slowed his season and saw him thrust to the bench. With the club relegated to the Championship, Gooch still could not find a spot in the starting lineup, and the club again dropped a level after a poor season.

This campaign, Gooch has been a regular fixture in the Sunderland lineup, making 21 league appearances so far including 20 starts. With his help, Sunderland sits third in the League One table and is firmly in the promotion conversation.

Gooch made sure manager Jack Ross, who joined the club in late May, got his due when discussing the American’s reasons for signing his extension.

“I am glad to get it all done because the manager has given me a lot of opportunities,” Gooch told the official Sunderland club website. “He has shown faith in me when I haven’t been playing well at times, but I’m delighted to be in this first team and playing because that’s the most important thing at my age. The club has completely changed since the summer and the manager was a big reason for me wanting to stay. He has had a big impact on me this season and given me the license to do what I do best. Hopefully I can continue to show the form I have done in the first-half of the season and help us get promoted.”

Gooch has four caps for the United States national team, with three of those coming in friendlies. He has not started for the national team in his career, with all four appearances coming off the bench. He last appeared for the national team back in May, playing the final 17 minutes of a 3-0 friendly win over Bolivia.

Ligue 1: Mbappe’s winner for PSG; Monaco still struggling

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PARIS (AP) Two days after celebrating his 20th birthday, Kylian Mbappe grabbed Paris Saint-Germain’s winner against Nantes in a scrappy 1-0 home result on Saturday.

With PSG heading toward a third straight French league draw, Mbappe slid in at the back post to stab home Angel Di Maria’s corner from the right in the 68th minute.

It took France’s World Cup star to the top of the league scoring charts with 13, and ensured PSG heads into the winter break unbeaten in domestic competitions.

PSG is 13 points ahead of second-placed Lille, which lost at home to Toulouse 2-1 and has played two games more than PSG.

Third-placed Lyon closed the gap on Lille to two points as forward Nabil Fekir netted for the third straight game in a 1-1 draw at fourth-place Montpellier. Lyon has a game in hand on Lille, and Montpellier has one in hand on Lyon after previous weekends saw a spate of postponements due to widespread anti-government protests around the country.

Saint-Etienne was the big winner on the night, moving level on points with Montpellier after a comfortable 3-0 home win against Dijon. Saint-Etienne’s front line worked well, with Kevin Monnet-Paquet, Wahbi Khazri and Robert Beric all scoring.

At the other end of the table, the pressure was mounting on beleaguered Monaco coach Thierry Henry after losing at home to last-placed Guingamp 2-0. Since taking charge in October, Henry has won only three out of 14 matches overall.

Monaco was in 19th place and only two points ahead of Guingamp, which scored in the second half through forwards Marcus Thuram and Nolan Roux.