The season of Stones: how Barnsley Beckenbauer sparked City’s surge

“Talk about John Stones. Please, before Haaland.” And Pep Guardiola banged his head on the press conference dais in mock exasperation. It was September last year, at the height of Erling-mania, and Manchester City had just beaten Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League with a goal from their big new striker. But Guardiola was keen to shift the conversation elsewhere.

And in hindsight, Guardiola was not really joking. Instead, he was trying to give us a clue. He was, as ever, urging us to look beyond the superficial and see what was happening under the bonnet. The season that may well be remembered as the greatest in City’s history has been built not merely on the goals of Haaland and the assists of Kevin De Bruyne, but on the subtle changes and innovations further back. It has been, above all, the season of Stones.

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It’s worth zooming out at this point to get a sense of the transformation that has taken place here. Around the time Liverpool were marching towards the Premier League title in a pandemic-interrupted 2019-20 season, Stones found himself cut adrift. Rúben Dias and Aymeric Laporte were the first-choice centre-halves, with Nathan Aké and Eric García just behind them. Stones had lost his England place. He had split from his long-term partner and his personal life was in turmoil. One of English football’s most promising defensive prospects was drifting into irrelevance.

But Guardiola never quite lost faith. Perhaps there has always been a certain kinship between these two men who both landed in Manchester during the transitional summer of 2016. Like Guardiola, another sublime talent with a penchant for attractive passing football, Stones arrived with plenty of admirers but also a significant proportion of doubters. Could they scrap? Could they adapt? Could they do what it takes to win the biggest prizes in English football? And so in a way, the story of Guardiola at City is also the story of Stones: a journey of learning and growth, of removing – one by one – every potential obstacle to greatness.

They call him the Barnsley Beckenbauer, and in many ways the seeds of Stones’s current role – a kind of sophisticated defensive-midfield hybrid – were sown at Oakwell under the tutelage of Ronnie Branson and Mark Burton. Barnsley’s academy coaches were strongly influenced by the Barcelona team of the late 2000s and, against plenty of internal scepticism, were trying to rebuild their pathways along the principles of Guardiola’s side. Often they would line up without a striker. Mason Holgate, another cultured centre-half, came through the academy about the same time. But it was Stones who was the star of that generation, a big central defender with the touch and vision of a playmaker.

The sight of a trophy engraver adding the winning team's name to the trophy is all part of the fanfare of victory in a final, along with the ticker-tape, player selfies and managers getting soaked. Things will be slightly different at Wembley on Saturday – the trophy will arrive with the word MANCHESTER already on it.

The competition’s official trophy and silverware provider, Thomas Lyte, are responsible for etching the winning club’s name into history each season. To mark the unique occasion of a Manchester derby final, the city's named has already been etched into place – either City or United will be added following the final whistle. Guardian sport

“A lot of my old coaches said that they could see me playing in midfield,” Stones would later say. “I was the one who wasn’t sure. That’s maybe where I should have believed more in myself. Football’s so fluid now. It’s about understanding your responsibility, knowing where your teammates are. Being higher up the pitch, I really enjoy the fluidity. Teams play with so many players behind the ball and we have to be intricate in the final third.”

Pep Guardiola gives instructions to John Stones during Manchester City’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Real Madrid
Pep Guardiola gives instructions to John Stones during Manchester City’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Real Madrid. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

Stones’s new gig at City has its origins in a familiar Guardiola obsession: how to create overloads in possession without leaving his side vulnerable to the counterattack. Frequently he has done this by moving full-backs into midfield when his side have the ball: Philipp Lahm, João Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko, among others, have all fulfilled this role for him in the past. But it also creates a potential pressure point: forcing the full-back to cover a lot of ground, to be almost perfect in their positioning and timing of runs. And with Cancelo (on loan) and Zinchenko leaving the club, Guardiola tried a different idea. What if the extra midfield pivot alongside Rodri was not a wide player, but a centre-half?

Watch Stones in midfield and what strikes you above all is the speed and efficiency with which he moves the ball on. One touch, two touches, no flourish: it looks elementary and in a way it is, but the value of those simple passes has a compound effect. The aim is to provoke the press, forcing the opponent to engage him higher up the field, which then creates space in behind. Stones wants to feel the hot breath of an attacker on the back of his neck. It means they are probably not where they should be.

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And when City do lose the ball, Stones can simply slot back into the four-man defence, with three men already behind him to snuff out the break. Since Stones started playing in midfield in early March, City have conceded a goal every 171 minutes. Before, they were conceding every 103 minutes. Haaland, for all his spectacular returns, was not the key to turning City’s season around. Quietly, it was Stones. And with Trent Alexander-Arnold also moving into a more central role for Liverpool, Gareth Southgate has an intriguing array of options if he fancies tinkering with the England midfield.

For now, Stones’s gaze is firmly fixed on Wembley and the second leg of City’s treble mission. Part of Manchester United’s gargantuan task on Saturday will be to stop Stones dictating the game, and whether it is even worth the bother. Does Bruno Fernandes have the discipline to press him? Would Fred end up getting drawn out of position?

Guardiola has always prided himself on staying one step ahead, on devising new and ever more fiendish puzzles for opponents to ponder. And in Stones, we have his latest teaser: a player who always seems to know what he’s doing, even if we don’t.