Talking Tactics

Why roaming Stones is like an extra player for Man City

By Adrian Clarke 1 Mar 2024
Talking Tactics Stones

Adrian Clarke says Man Utd will need to pay close attention to City's floating centre-back on Sunday

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Adrian Clarke looks at key tactical points and players who can be influential in Matchweek 27.

Player analysis - John Stones (Man City)

When Stones is fit and available, he has a habit of making Manchester City feel like they are playing with an extra man.  

If the England international starts at right-back, he regularly slides infield to become an additional midfielder in the build-up phase.  

In matches where he plays as a central defender, he loves to drift forward to create a box midfield that once again overloads the opposition.  

Roaming role

In last weekend's 1-0 win at Bournemouth we witnessed the next phase of Stones’ dual-role capabilities.  

Occupying a midfield berth alongside Rodri in a 3-2-4-1, Stones dropped in to become a left-sided central defender whenever City played out from the back, allowing Nathan Ake to push on out wide.  

As possession developed, Stones took up some orthodox central midfield positions to link play, but in a fresh development we also saw him pop up regularly in between the lines both centrally and on the right side of the attack.  

In Stones' pass map below, you will see he moved diagonally from left-back to the opposite wing.  

So often Man City’s spare man, Stones stepped into space to create 2v1s and 3v2s all over the pitch.  

Stones pass map v Bournemouth (A)
Intelligent running 

Stones is no stranger to joining in with attacks inside the final third, but his hybrid role at Vitality Stadium was a little different to anything we had seen before.  

His spatial awareness has always been excellent – it is a reason why Pep Guardiola trusts him to play dual roles – and this was evident on the south coast.  

In the example below he found himself just behind Erling Haaland, operating as a No 10. 

The moment he spotted that Bournemouth centre-back Illia Zabarnyi had followed Phil Foden into midfield, Stones immediately eyed up the space that Zabarnyi had vacated.  

Playing a terrific give-and-go with Bernardo Silva, Stones strode beyond the last man, drawing a foul and a yellow card from his marker Lewis Cook on the edge of the box.  

It was outstanding box-to-box midfield play.  

Stones run v Bournemouth

Silva enjoyed linking with Stones on his inside, feeding him with 13 passes. On a couple of occasions, the Portuguese playmaker even released Stones to the byline, where he delivered a pair of crosses.  

Wherever he starts in Sunday’s Manchester derby, Stones’ direct opponents may have to track some unexpected forward runs. He has become a master at floating around the pitch to knit moves together or to create room for others.  

Influential figure

It has been an injury-ravaged campaign for City’s long-serving defender, who has started only nine Premier League matches.  

His versatility and composure made a huge difference in City’s quest for the Treble last season, and in 2023/24 they have also performed better when he has been in the starting XI.  

From a defensive standpoint, Stones’ presence seems to solidify the champions.  

The number of goals they concede per match is halved, helping to raise City’s win ratio to 88.9 per cent, compared with just 58.8 per cent without him.  

His importance to the side is outlined in the table below.  

City with/without Stones
With Stones starting PL 2023/24 Without Stones starting
9 Matches 17
8 Wins 10
0 Draws 5
1 Losses 2
2.3 Ave. goals for 2.2
0.6 Ave. goals against 1.2
88.9% Win percentage 58.8%
2.7 Points/match 2.1

Guardiola started Stones as his left-sided centre-back in City’s impressive 3-0 win at Man Utd back in October.  

During that contest Stones consistently pushed into central midfield when the champions had quality possession, and the numerical advantage he provided helped them control proceedings.  

Less than 60 seconds before the image below was frozen, Stones was in a left-back position passing back to Ederson, but as play built up down the right, he made his way forward to support Rodri as an extra midfielder.  

Stones pushing on v Man Utd

That movement drew Man Utd players out of position, and from Rodri’s square pass he moved forward before picking out Jack Grealish unmarked on the left flank.  

The surprise factor that Stones brings with his positioning asks questions of every team they face, so Erik ten Hag’s men will need to keep close tabs on him at the Etihad Stadium.  

This distribution chalkboard from that last encounter against United does not look like that of a stereotypical central defender.  

Stones pass map v Man Utd (A)

For this reason, he will be considered a "floating" player by their big rivals this time around.  

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