How has “weak” Man City international become key to Pep’s 2021 plans?
Manchester City are a team which always want to dominate the game and attack, especially under the management of Pep Guardiola. They hold the goal-scoring record for a Premier League season, also scoring 102 goals in the previous campaign. However, this season they have faced difficulties in finding the back of the net; on the contrary, it might be a surprise to see City keeping more clean sheets and conceding fewer goals than the rest of the teams in the league. So, who has made the difference?
Our answer is John Stones, one of Pep’s first signings as City manager. He has been heavily criticized in recent times by fans and pundits, including former Chelsea and Norwich City striker – Chris Sutton, who pin-pointed Stones as the “weak point” of the team in 2016. However, Stones has once again proved that Sutton was wrong, now that he has replaced Aymeric Laporte as the first-choice centre-back alongside new arrival Rúben Dias.
This tactical analysis will show how Stones was able to reclaim his spot at City by using data and in-game examples. We will compare Stones with Laporte a lot as they seem to be competing for the same spot.
First, we compared the numbers of the City defenders to briefly understand the level of Stones among his competitors. Only the four top choices were included in the shortlist, which is why Eric García is not on the list due to his uncertainty future and limited game time.
The bar chart shows some defensive statistics for the central defenders. In terms of PAdj interceptions, Stones ranked third with a value of 5.95, but the margin between all four players was not large enough to indicate huge differences.
Stones has more PAdj tackles than any of his counterparts (0.71 per 90). However, this is not a pivotal element of Pep’s team, and it is a matter of context, since tackles do not necessarily reflect good defensive work; they could also be the result of a mistake in positioning or anticipation.
Therefore, the most comprehensive metric would be successful defensive actions per 90 to estimate the output of the defenders. Stones has been the best of the City centre-backs so far this season on this metric, registering 6.27 events per 90, while Dias came close at 6.1, and Nathan Aké and Laporte got 5.93 and 5.89 successfule defensive actions per 90 respectively.
Apart from comparing the general defensive performances, it is also vital to measure the physical ability of the centre-backs. The first metrics used are defensive duels per 90 and its success rate. The term “defensive duel” refers to an event when a player attempts to dispossess an opposition player to stop an attack.
Stones had interesting figures in these categories. His 2.82 defensive duels per 90 was the lowest of the four, but 66.67% success rate ranked second. On the contrary, Laporte had more attempts than anyone else (3.77), but only completed 31.25% of them. These numbers suggest the differences in style of play between these two players. Stones is more conservative, trying not to engage the opposition unless he was certain to win the ball back. Laporte is the opposite, frequently trying to challenge the opposition.
Apart from defensive duels, aerial duels should also be used as a metric to measure the physical abilities of players. The term refers to events that require two or more players from opposing teams to jump to compete for the ball.
As the above scatter chart has shown, Stones has had 3.45 aerial duels at a 63.64% success rate so far. This put him between Dias and Aké for attempts, while he is also third in terms of success rate. Once again, it is notable that even though Laporte has had more aerial duels this season (4.48), his success rate of 42.11% is much lower than Stones’.
The last bar chart shows a series of passing accuracies. These include total passes, short/medium passes, long passes, passes to the final third, and progressive passes. It is important to compare the quality of passing for centre-backs in a Pep Guardiola side, especially as misplaced passes can often lea to counter-attacking situations for opponents.
Somewhat surprisingly, Stones has been better than Laporte in all metrics except for the accurate progressive passes %. Most observers would have thought that Laporte is the better ball-playing defender, but this season at least, it seems as though the Frenchman is going through a dip in form, and Stones has capitalized on that.
Capitalizing on Laporte’s declining form
The data seems to show that Stones has been in much better form than Laporte, and his improved performances have directly contributed to Pep putting Laporte on the bench, or even out of the 20-man squad on occasion.
The below tables show the starting information of both players in this season. Stones (left) lost his position in the early part of the season after a disappointing second half at Molineux, while Laporte (right) started those games after missing the first few because he tested positive for COVID-19. However, Laporte did not provide a level of performance that was good enough to convince Pep, and has thus been dropped since the loss to Tottenham. In those games without Laporte, Stones took his position and played incredibly well, contributing to five clean sheets in the five games he has played since then.
This analysis also includes some in-game examples, showing the poor form of Laporte and how Stones has provided a high-quality alternative.
Compared to his best form, Laporte has clearly lost his sense of anticipating dangerous situations. Hence, he has been failing to anticipate the movement of opponents and has also committed a few mistakes which have led to scoring opportunities being conceded.
Here, Laporte was caught ball-watching and unaware of spaces which opened up after the left-back pressed in the wide zone. He also overlooked the presence of Papa Gueye at the edge of the box, and when Gueye ran into that gap, Laporte was very late to recognize and merely reacted, and a shot was conceded.
The second example was provided here, in the game against Spurs which has been Laporte’s last appearance so far this season. His decision to press Kane was reckless given his spacing with the left-back and the presence of Son. Another part of the reason that led to these issues was his insufficient understanding of his surroundings. As mentioned, Laporte did not scan the pitch enough to perceive the whole situation, which led to both him and Dias challenging Kane, which opened the space for Son to run into.
Of course, Ederson could have done better as well, but Laporte should have communicated with Dias and been aware of Son’s positioning, rather than recklessly going to challenge Kane.
The above situations also outlined another issue – the strategic relation of a centre-back and a full-back. It was clear that Laporte was not too good at covering the left-back, due to which opponents could develop their attacks down that side.
Stones did better to help Kyle Walker on the right side, and the fact that they both are native English speakers could be a reason for this. On the other side, Dias could also help João Cancelo as they are both Portuguese. This chemistry was only visible with Stones on the pitch, which is why the Englishman has stood out as part of the City defence this season.
The above image shows how Stones was able to provide defensive cover for Walker. In this example, the right-back went to press the outside player, so space would be available behind him. To decide on whether that spacing required coverage or not, Stones did well to keep his head up and scan to the right direction. It helped him to notice the runner between the lines and he was fully-prepared to cover Walker.
Stones stays focused
When Stones is in top form, he fulfils Pep’s tactical needs. Apart from playing better than Laporte recently, most of his defensive actions were appropriate and he has been full of confidence as a result. This section looks at some of Stones’ brilliant performances across different situations to explain how he has been able to help the team.
In the first image, the striker was going to receive the ball. Given the zonal marking system used by Pep, the players were not marking their opponents tightly, so the defender must decide on whether to step out or not.
And Stones did step up but did not over-commit himself. He closed down the opposition, but did not get too tight which would run the risk of being dribbled past. Therefore, when Che Adams turned, he discovered the passing angle for a forward pass was largely limited. The timing of Stones’ pressure was good too; if he did it too early, then the through ball might be played behind him, and if he pressured late, Adams would be able to go past him with the ball, or he would be forced to commit a foul in a dangerous area.
If Stones stayed in position, Adams would have to turn and look for his next option without pressure, which would potentially develop the attack into advanced areas. Stones’ confidence to press and perfect timing meant that the attack was suffocated instead.
This is a domain in which Stones has done well when he is in good condition. Over-committing had been his problem last season when his challenges failed to win the ball. Opponents would then be able to attack the space left in behind.
Below is a situation from last season at St James’ Park in a slightly different context. Stones rushed out to press, but it was too late and he failed to win the ball. He also failed to narrow the angle, allowing the opposition to pass the ball behind. As a result, a goal was conceded because of the space that Newcastle exploited behind him.
Another area where Stones has done well is in anticipating danger. Laporte did not maintain his good habit of scanning the pitch. However, even when retreating to deeper areas, Stones kept a good body orientation and kept looking behind himself frequently to make sure everything was under control.
For example, he checked Marcus Rashford’s movement below when defending alone. It was vital to keep doing this, or else the attacking players would attack his blindside, and Stones would not be able to track them.
The last two examples demonstrate Stones’ capability to defend in a high line now – a commonly seen scenario under Pep’s tactics, which was impressive. The first one shows how Stones calmly communicates with his teammates and tries delaying the whole situation. It is a part of his maturity now, as he seldom actively engages the ball when defending.
It was important to delay the attack as it bought time to regroup, and this is a big improvement for City, as they have previously suffered due to the enthusiasm shown by the likes of Nicolás Otamendi in similar situations in the past.
The last example shows his good anticipation and partnership with Dias. Here, the Portuguese central defender went to press the opposition, Stones had two options – move closer to the player at the centre or cover the space behind Dias.
Of course, he did the latter one, which was the correct call as Rodri and Cancelo would have covered the central player. However, if the ball was released behind Dias, it would be difficult to recover if Stones hd pressed the central player as well. Stones was calm enough to judge the situation and made the correct decision. This calmness has been his biggest improvement compared to the relatively sluggish performances in previous seasons.
All he needs is consistency
Despite all the compliments that we have given to Stones, there was one old underlying issue – the consistency level of the player. It was not a surprise to see Stones playing at this level, as he also did well in the 2017/18 season. However, things went badly after injuries and fitness issues, and Stones found it difficult to bring his form back up to those levels later.
Even at the start of the season, his performance against Wolves at the second half was disappointing. We mentioned his capability to defend in a high line, but without a high level of concentration, it can cause issues.
For example, Stones was unaware of the player near him as he was watching the ball, and hence he failed to set the offside trap and let Daniel Podence run in behind the line.
We also saw his good habit to check the surroundings to adjust his defensive positioning. However, this was not always happening before, as the opposition often attacked from Stones’ blindside. In this image, the Newcastle player ran behind Stones and attacked the cross, only because the English defender was paying attention to the ball and not checking his surroundings enough.
Can Stones keep up these good habits permanently and stay away from injuries? Only time will tell.
Everyone thought Stones would have moved on from City in the summer, but the defender has done extremely well to recapture his best form from a few seasons ago, and therefore convince Pep that he is one of the best options available to him at centre-back at the moment.
As shown in this scout report, Stones is in top form now. Given the highly congested nature of the fixture list this season, it is a great opportunity for the former Everton man to put any doubts about his durability to the side and become invaluable to Pep, which should also open the door to a potential England recall ahead of the Euros.