John Stones produced a performance worthy of any Man of the Match award during Manchester City’s FA Cup final triumph.
The FA Cup final was 48 minutes old when John Stones injected fresh energy into the sea of blue that was gathered at the west end of Wembley Stadium.
The Manchester City defender, after receiving a short pass from goalkeeper Stefan Ortega, was quickly closed down by four Manchester United players and it looked as though there would be no way out for the Barnsley Beckenbauer, as he is sometimes known. Somehow, though, he managed to swivel away from any potential danger without breaking sweat.Being closed down by Marcus Rashford, Stones turned right on the very edge of his own box, strode past Christian Eriksen as though he wasn’t there and played a composed pass out to Kyle Walker, who was stationed on the right touchline. From a potentially awkward situation, Stones played his and City’s way out with easeThe most impressive part of that scenario, however, was that Stones had dropped deep from the defensive-midfield position to get on the ball. Unlike in recent weeks, where he has started at right back and moved into midfield when City have the ball, Stones started as an out-and-out defensive-midfielder, partnering Rodri at the base of the engine room.
The England international, who will be hoping to help City complete a historic treble when they face Inter Milan in the Champions League final on Saturday night in Istanbul, was exceptional alongside the Spaniard, dictating patterns of play and dropping between the lines to get on the ball. He was in a league of his own in that sense and his performance, had it not been for Ilkay Gundogan’s two-goal haul, probably would have been enough for him to scoop the Man of the Match award.Only turning 29 last weekend, Stones is ageing like a fine wine, progressively getting better and better, inspired by Pep Guardiola’s outstanding coaching credentials. Though he has always been a confident ball-playing centre-back, not afraid of stepping out of the back-four to get City up the pitch, his ability to buzz around the midfield is a new trait that Guardiola has helped him develop.
Speaking after the 3-0 win over Bayern Munich in April, a game in which Stones swapped the right-back berth for a defensive-midfield role when City were in possession of the ball, the former Everton ace said: “It’s a big learning curve for me. I’m always learning and looking to improve.
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“Not just me, everyone rotates and plays in different positions throughout the game. It doesn’t come naturally when I’m in the middle but I’m willing to keep trying to improve and read the game and bring my qualities and skills to the team.
“I’m giving everything and being as positive as I can be when I get the ball. The manager puts me there because he sees what I can do in training.”
If his performance against Bayern in that hybrid role was impressive, his showing against United at Wembley, where he was tasked with forgetting about his defensive duties, was exceptional. He oozed class in every part of his game and was a key contributor in helping City maintain their treble hopes.
As expected, United moved Bruno Fernandes out to their right-wing, resulting in Fred partnering Casemiro at the base of their midfield with Eriksen pushing into a more advanced role. It meant the two Brazilians were occupied with dealing with Kevin De Bruyne and Gundogan, leaving Stones as the spare man.He was able to dart forward on occasions and overload the midfield, leaving United chasing shadows. It was a task he carried out to perfection. He is tailor-made for the role and his importance in making City tick, both on Saturday and at various other junctures this term, cannot be disputed.
He may not generate the excitement the likes of Erling Haaland, Jack Grealish and De Bruyne do, but he is just as important in making sure Guardiola’s team operates in the way that he expects it to. He has now earned the right to be considered as one of their most important figures.