Pep Guardiola has discovered a new creature. Accustomed to the exotic creations of the Manchester City coach, in England they say that it is a "hybrid", as if Guardiola were a Frankenstein alienated by the laboratory. The novelty points to the metamorphosis of John Stones.
A lifelong defender, Stones has mutated into the figure that occupies the axis of the back when the team loses the ball and is transfigured into a multipurpose midfielder when attacking, even producing the most subtle combinations in the small spaces of the front of the opponent's area. As an Arsenal analyst recently noted: "It's a carbon copy of what Cruyff did in the toughest matches: Koeman is Dias; Akanji is Ferrer; Walker is Sergi; and Stones is Miguel Angel Nadal climbing alongside Guillermo Amor ahead of Guardiola."
After dedicating himself to tennis quite successfully, the uncle of the best Spanish tennis player in history was forged as a footballer. He was pivot in Mallorca. This is how Cruyff signed him for Barça, in 1991. "We were in preseason," Nadal recalls; "And as Koeman joined later because he had played the Euro, one day Cruyff put me in centre-back. We didn't talk about it, nor did he tell me 'you're going to play centre-back'. He put me there and alternated midfield with central defense... What Stones does is similar. Like Cruyff, what Guardiola is mainly looking for is superiority in midfield."
Guardiola, like Cruyff, seeks superiority in midfield
Miguel Angel Nadal
Domènec Torrent, Guardiola's assistant at Barça, Bayern and City, adds a nuance. "The hybrid was done by Cruyff but the other way around: Nadal started as a pivot and got between the central defenders. The first time we saw the reverse movement was against Valerenga." On July 29, 2010 in Oslo, during a friendly with Barça in preseason, Guardiola was dazzled by the maneuvers made by the center of Valerenga, the Norwegian international Stefan Strandberg, who took off and got between the interiors to attack. For days, he thought about the invention of his counterpart, Martin Andersen, the coach of Valerenga, former midfielder of Blackburn and Molde.
Andersen, just 46, left the bench in 2016. But his occurrence survived in Guardiola's test tube. On March 1, against Liverpool in the Premier League, Stones began to detach himself from Dias to organize City's attack. The result was splendid: 4-1. Witnesses to Stones' evolution were not surprised. Before signing him for 55 million euros in 2016, with 22 years, by order of Guardiola, the City technicians had studied him at Everton, where Roberto Martínez employed him as a winger. His progress with the ball on the side of the Liverpool team was extraordinary. He was astonishing for his solvency in all spaces and for radiating a certain impression of arrogance. "He looked like he was overacting," said Juanma Lillo, Guardiola's assistant; "But I didn't overact!"
Skinny, light, resilient and fast at the same time, Stones is ahead of Rodri in one thing: it consumes less energy to get around. But his great virtue is innate. He has such a wide peripheral vision that he dares to ask for the ball in front of his goalkeeper, as if the pressure of the attackers who harass him from behind did not cause him the dread that this situation usually unleashes in many professionals. As Guardiola said years ago in a famous press conference: "Stones has more balls than everyone in this room; That's why I'm delighted with him."
He seems shy. But he was always a nice and daring Englishman. Great personality. "He's the first to start dancing when the team is partying," recalls a colleague. His self-confidence accelerated his maturation. He had a daughter with his girlfriend since he was 12, Millie Savage, and their separation and the court battle that followed for custody of the girl erupted into a scandal with soap opera tones that the tabloids exploited to the fullest. On the way to the 2021 Champions League final, after completing a magnificent season with Rúben Dias, he fell into a depressive pit. When Porto's game against Chelsea arrived, it had come from months of choppy activity and emotional shocks. The loss marked him as one of the players who moved furthest from his base of performance. Two years later, he has regenerated to emerge as one of the essential figures for the balance of the most overwhelming team of the Champions League that concludes on Saturday.
"To do what John does you just have to find the position to receive and pass the ball," Guardiola explained at Wembley, after the conquest of the Cup against United, last Saturday, when asked about the adaptation of the defender to the game in 360 degrees. "We want to have more passes and more control. Nothing more than that."
There are more and more plants like this. Those centre-backs could also play as pivots in the dynamic game.
"It is much more problematic to advance the position than to delay it," observes Miguel Ángel Nadal. "It's easier to adapt to going backwards because the whole game is in your face. The more you get ahead, you have to be aware of more areas. The visual part, the angles, increase. I would have liked to make my career as a midfielder, but when I was at Barcelona I went through different areas and discovered that the place I liked least was the bench. I said to myself, 'I'm going to try to adapt!' In Manchester, in a Champions League tie I played in midfield, I was central and I exchanged with Koeman who went to midfield."
Andoni Zubizarreta, goalkeeper of Cruyff's Barça, remembers the figure of the free up front: "Cruyff used Nadal as a center back next to Koeman, and sometimes ahead of Pep, when the opposing teams were physically much superior. I put it inside, like an eight, for the arrival from the second line, or to collide more. Now, the Stones thing is the story in reverse. For many years we looked for good central defenders to be able to give the ball an outlet. There are more and more plants like this. Those centre-backs could also play as pivots in the dynamic game. I put a center back and then in defensive positions if my outside players go higher this serves as a free forward close the line of the rival striker. "
"Inter have good patterns," Guardiola said on Tuesday, praising his rival in the Champions League final in Istanbul. The term pattern echoes in Guardiola's language as often as a tailor, a mathematician or a sociologist would use it. The patterns of behavior, the models of plays, the repeated movements until the automation, accumulate by hundreds in the head of the coach, obsessed with manipulating football as if it were a meccano since he attended as a player the kaleidoscopic inventions of Johan Cruyff.
John Stones has refined the model. More than an advanced libero, the Englishman acts as the setter of the game in an area especially sensitive to rival counterattacks. His security with the ball, as well as his reactivity when he loses it to cut passing lines, elevated him as a key piece in the semifinals with Madrid. Next Saturday in Istanbul, he will enter the domains of the sorcerer Brozovic to try to catch the long-awaited Champions of Manchester City.
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