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New midfielder in town

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If there is one Pep Guardiola loves above all, it is to innovate constantly, even at the cost of defeat. The Spaniard lost the 2021 UEFA Champions League final because he refused to play with a true number six in his starting lineup. However, his recent innovation has worked out to perfection, with centre-back John Stones being asked to play in the midfield.

For the last six years, John Stones, who was signed with much fanfare in 2016, has blown hot and cold with injuries and lack of form not allowing him to become an integral part of the team. However, even with Ruben Dias, Aymeric Laporte, Nathan Ake, and Manuel Akanji In the squad, Stones got Guardiola’s trust at the start of the current season.

But like so many times in his career, injuries again barred him from playing a long stretch of games in the season. At one time, it also appeared that he would miss the World Cup in Qatar. Ultimately, he recovered, playing all five games at the tournament.

He returned from the World Cup with great form and confidence but once again was the victim of the hamstring injury that had hampered him throughout the season. However, it was here that Guardiola saw a different role for Stones. Whether it was the injuries or his vision to have a backup in the middle of the park, we may not know, but Guardiola was ready to take a gamble on him playing in the midfield.

So, how has John Stones fared in his new role?

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John Stones – the midfielder

According to Transfermarkt, John Stones has played seven games (four in the Premier League, three in the Champions League) as a defensive midfielder. So what do the stats say? In his first outing in midfield, his passing numbers were normal, but he made up for it with his incredible work rate and pressing that did not allow the Liverpool midfielders any space. As a result, City won the match 4-1.

His next stint in the position in the Premier League came against Southampton, where he only played 56 minutes. He only managed 32 passes failing to score on the Expected Threat metric (xT) and the Expected Offensive Value Added (xOVA). Just three days later, though, he would deliver his best performance in the position on the biggest stage.

Playing alongside Rodri, Stones put in a beast of a show against German powerhouses Bayern Munich helping the team win 3-0. Stones got an assist and outshone every player on the pitch. For this, he was named the Man of the Match award.

However, Guardiola altered the tactics that allowed him to mould Stones as a midfielder slowly. So he played the next two games in the Premier League against Leicester City, and Arsenal saw him as a centre-back. Between those two games, he played as a defensive midfielder in the Champions League second leg against Bayern.

Since then, he has played in both positions as a hybrid player. And slowly, he has been getting better at it. His performance against West Ham United was perhaps his best in terms of attacking contribution, with the player scoring 0.07 on the xOVA metric and 0.05 on xT from dribbles, his best this season, according to Soccerment.

Stone has continued his brilliant performances in the midfield with an impressive display in the second leg of the Champions League semi-final, where City destroyed Real Madrid 4-0. In this match, Stones’ impeccable passing and accurate high pressing gave no breathing room to the opposition.

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Can John Stones become a full-time midfielder?

This is not the first time that Pep Guardiola has converted defenders into midfielders. His successful stint at Bayern Munich saw him push Philip Lahm and later his successor Joshua Kimmich into the midfield, both of which were immensely successful. Even at Manchester City, Guardiola’s fullbacks Kyle Walker and Joao Cancelo used to tuck in the midfield when the team had possession of the ball.

However, Stones is the first centre-back to make that transition. And it is easy to see why. There might not be a better defender in the entire Premier League based on technical ability than Stones. Not only is he a good passer, but he also has the vision to use that ability to devastating effect in the midfield.

The Englishman is also a workhorse who can play at a high tempo for the entire match. Combine this with his high-pressing skills, and you get a world-class number six. However, with Stones, the major problem is injuries, which have repeatedly proved to be the biggest obstacle in his career.

Guardiola wants to push Stones into midfield because he thinks his team has begun to slack off after winning so much silverware. It was why he boldly allowed Cancelo, his best fullback, to go on loan to Bayern Munich.

In an interview with Gary Neville, the Spaniard said that only those teams which regularly changed personnel to improve managed to stay at the top. This essentially means that Guardiola wants to depend on as few players as possible, allowing him more freedom to mould his squad. While there may be no equally good backup for Erling Haaland or Kevin de Bruyne, Stones, with time, could offer an alternative to Rodri, giving Guardiola more options.

However, this is only the start, and how far John Stones the midfielder can go depends on how fit he is. The talent has always been there.

Saumy Deepak Tripathi
A Bayern Munich fan who is deeply in love with football statistics. Has a soft spot for goalkeepers! (well only he knows why). You’ll find him vibing on 70’s classic songs and spends an abnormal amount of time cooking.

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