Guardiola vindicated as Stones thrives in ‘Barnsley Beckenbauer’ role | Jonathan Wilson

Some tactical tweaks are not overthinking – they’re just thinking, and the Manchester City manager’s decisions paid off

Not all tactical tweaks are the result of overthinking. Pep Guardiola did not simply pick the obvious starting XI. He did not pick the starting lineup that had propelled City through the Premier League run-in. He is criticised readily enough when he makes changes and City don’t win; this was an occasion when the change paid off. Guardiola made the necessary adjustment, and was rewarded with his third Champions League.

Until mid-February City, by their own remarkable standards, had not had a particularly great season. There were questions – entirely reasonable questions for all the subsequent sneering – about what Erling Haaland did to the balance of the side. When a player doesn’t involve himself in the play, when he has only 20-30 touches in a game as standard, how can he contribute to the maintenance of possession that is so necessary to providing the control that Guardiola prioritises? Yet Haaland, obviously, is a magnificent goalscorer and offers a major threat on the counter.

To accommodate him Guardiola had to locate another midfielder. He found him in John Stones, initially stepping up from full-back into what was in effect a wing-half role. But that creates defensive problems against pacy wingers and requires a lot of readjustments. It is a risky strategy – although one Guardiola had pursued at times with Philipp Lahm and David Alaba at Bayern and with João Cancelo at City. Far safer, it turned out, to have Stones start at centre-back and step up alongside Rodri from there.

But Internazionale play with a pair of centre-forwards. If Stones had stepped up on Saturday, he risked leaving Rúben Dias to deal with both Lautaro Martínez and Edin Dzeko. The solution was to return Stones to the hybrid right-back/wing-half role that meant Kyle Walker missing out for Nathan Aké and Manuel Akanji shifting from left-back to play alongside Dias as a reasonably orthodox right-sided central defender.

There was one dicey moment about 12 minutes in as Nicolò Barella broke, but Federico Dimarco was unable to get forward quickly enough from left wing-back to exploit the space that had opened up on the City right. But that was the calculated risk City took. Dimarco was unable to push too high for fear of leaving Bernardo Silva untended and that, in turn, gave Stones some breathing space.

And when City had the ball, the plan seemed to work as it should. Stones, certainly, relished the freedom he was afforded. At one point he found himself on the left wing, played a pass inside, jogged on a diagonal across the pitch and picked up the ball on the right wing. Early in the second half he found space in the Inter half, surged forward and shuffled by Barella before, just as he seemed poised to shoot, being forced into traffic. There were shimmies and feints, more completed dribbles than any player in a Champions League final since Lionel Messi in 2015, one comically atrocious touch on the hour that rocketed off his foot as he contemplated a shot and improbable glory, and a general sense of imposing control.

Never has the “Barnsley Beckenbauer” moniker seemed more appropriate. This was Stones as the libero, the ultimate expression of the point Jack Charlton made in 1994 that tactically the full-back is the most important player on the pitch, the one with the freedom to dictate the shape of the game. In a largely scrappy and ugly encounter, especially after Kevin De Bruyne had been forced off, Stones offered a sense of authority. It probably isn’t coincidence that the extraordinary chance Romelu Lukaku missed late on and the Robin Gosens header that Ederson saved came after Stones had gone off.

And because this was, for once in a key European game, a night when things went right for City, it was Akanji, an underrated and hugely important signing, who initiated the City winner with a deft through-ball to Bernardo Silva as he stepped up from the right side of central defence, the position Stones would ordinarily have occupied. Sometimes the fates give a tactical tweak a helping hand.

It was entirely appropriate that as Guardiola approached the end where the City fans were celebrating after the final whistle, it was Stones he was walking with, one arm hooked around his neck. It is entirely reasonable to point out that Guardiola has only ever managed superclubs and that his football is predicated on having brilliant players whose first touches can be taken for granted – and in the case of City, who still face 115 charges of financial irregularities from the Premier League, those are more than gripes about the nature of glory – but it’s also true that he improves players.

Pep Guardiola and John Stones celebrate after the final whistle.
Pep Guardiola and John Stones celebrate after the final whistle. Photograph: DeFodi Images/Getty Images

Stones was one of Guardiola’s first signings at City, and for a long time was regarded as a slightly flaky presence. He was, after all, one of those most un-English of things: a centre-back who could pass. Even Guardiola, who is very much in favour of centre-backs who can pass, seemed to lose faith at times. In 2019-20 and 2021-22, Stones began only 12 league games. He was far from a sure starter even at the beginning of this season. But after the sale of Cancelo meant another defender had to take on that auxiliary midfielder role, Stones has thrived. He is 29 now, and is finally delivering on his immense promise, not only as a useful defender but as a commanding deep-lying playmaker who is also very good in the air.

Some tactical tweaks are less overthinking than just thinking. Sometimes they are necessary. And sometimes, like here, they pay off.


Jonathan Wilson at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘You have to be lucky’: Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola grateful for small margins
Pep Guardiola said Manchester City’s 1-0 victory over Internazionale at Istanbul’s Ataturk Olympic Stadium that sealed the Champions League and a historic treble was ‘written in the stars’

Jamie Jackson at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium

10, Jun, 2023 @11:07 PM

Article image
Phil Foden provides energy and precision as classic Pep-ball prevails | Barney Ronay
Substitute gave Manchester City something they lacked and started the move that led to Rodri’s winner against Inter

Barney Ronay at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium

10, Jun, 2023 @11:02 PM

Article image
Outbreaks of chaos expose fatal flaw that keeps denying Guardiola European glory | Jonathan Wilson
As four pre-final defeats highlight, City’s mechanism is so complex that when it misfires it cannot easily be put right

Jonathan Wilson

07, May, 2022 @7:00 PM

Article image
Manchester City dominated Real Madrid but profligacy will concern Guardiola | Jonathan Wilson
Manchester City were far superior but at 1-1 looked vulnerable. Their failure to make the most of their many chances could be their biggest obstacle to winning the tournament

Jonathan Wilson

08, Aug, 2020 @10:43 AM

Article image
Rodri breaks Internazionale resistance to seal Manchester City’s treble glory
Manchester City are champions of Europe after Rodri’s fine second-half finish secured a 1-0 win over Internazionale in a tense and close final in Istanbul

David Hytner at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium

10, Jun, 2023 @8:59 PM

Article image
The season of Stones: how Barnsley Beckenbauer sparked City’s surge | Jonathan Liew
Manchester City’s treble bid has been founded not only on the goals of Erling Haaland but on subtle changes and innovations further back

Jonathan Liew

02, Jun, 2023 @1:00 PM

Article image
Maybe it’s time to welcome back the old fashioned wing-half – in modern guise | Jonathan Wilson
Could Trent Alexander-Arnold’s travails at Liverpool be helped by stepping inside into midfield as the full-back role evolves?

Jonathan Wilson

15, Apr, 2023 @7:00 PM

Article image
Pep Guardiola plots to evolve football once again with his use of Erling Haaland | Jonathan Wilson
The Manchester City manager using an orthodox central striker is a remarkable shift away from his successful attacking formula

Jonathan Wilson

20, Aug, 2022 @7:00 PM

Article image
Guardiola accepts Manchester City’s legacy depends on Champions League
The manager admits that victory against Internazionale is required if his Manchester City team are to be considered among the all-time greats

Aaron Bower

20, May, 2023 @9:30 PM

Article image
Carlo Ancelotti is the great pragmatist standing in Pep Guardiola’s path again | Jonathan Wilson
Haaland’s direct play has edged the City manager away from pitfalls of purism – but will it be enough against Real Madrid?

Jonathan Wilson

06, May, 2023 @7:00 PM