Pep Guardiola and his boys were supposed to be out of the title race by now. The blue side of Manchester should be left red-faced, and the boo-boys were supposed to question Manchester City’s expenditure on defensive ammunition – all according to the script in the early part of the 2020/21 premier league season.
Led by a manager known more for his midfield combination, attacking angles and defensive issues, the Citizens are surprisingly charging to the title not with their attacking swagger but their defensive solidity.
Under the tutelage of the Spaniard, the blue side of Manchester has only ever recorded the most clean sheets in a season once (2019/2020), and they did not win the league.
The biggest issue around the Manchester City side has always been defending. Defending set-pieces and managing counter-attacking situations have proved difficult in the past years. However, after the tumultuous start, this issue seems to have been solved.
Manchester City are managing counterattacks better than ever, and they are allowing fewer big chances than any point in the time Pep has spent at City.
The last time City conceded on the break was in their November defeat to Spurs. Since then, they have remained unbeaten and conceded only three goals in 14 premier league matches.
*Music switch – The Climb by Miley Cyrus*
What has changed?
Speaking to Sky Sports, Pep Guardiola pointed out what the team is doing right defensively at this moment.
“It is important. When you played 60 metres away from your goal then the controlling the counter-attack is important. Sometimes it is not possible because of the opposition players, but if you use the ball well and do not make mistakes, you will concede few.”
“It is the reason why we concede so few. The back four, no matter who plays, they are so solid. They do not make mistakes.”Pep Guardiola
At the heart of all of this is a center back pairing that has proven solid so far. The arrival of Ruben Dias has brought a lot of calm to the backline. The kind that the team has missed since the departure of the legendary, Vincent Kompany.
Pep on Dias
“Basically, he talks to them during the game,” Guardiola on Ruben Dias. “He anticipates. He does not play the game for himself, he looks what happens in front of him and behind him.”
While Ruben Dias is rightly getting the plaudits for the calmness and control he has brought to the back line. But John Stones’ reinvention of himself cannot go unnoticed.
Not many would have thought that the rejected stone will become the chief cornerstone. John Stones has raised the stakes and formed a formidable partnership at the heart of the defense along with summer acquisition Ruben Dias.
The English defender caused a lot of buzz when he joined City from Everton in a £47.5 million deal in 2016. The defender has had a roller coaster stay at the Etihad so far, as he failed to establish himself at the Etihad despite flashes here and there. At some point, Eric Garcia was seen as a better choice to Stones – however, things have now changed.
His partnership with Ruben Dias has brought 12 clean sheets in 14 starts and has kept out the highly rated Laporte despite the Frenchman being fit again.
*Music switch – Back to Basics by Headie One*
In a recent interview, he attributed his newly found form to a return to basics.
When quizzed on his return to form, he said:
“I think it’s been related to looking at what I can improve, personally.
“I think it’s down to me and me only, to look at myself and every aspect of my life. That’s what I did.
“I worked really hard every day on the training pitch, in the gym trying to stay fit, and I tried every detail, also in the recovery aspect.
“I dedicated everything towards it, trying to get back into the team, trying to fight for my spot. I’m still here to fight for my shirt, fight for my teammates, the club, everything and show my quality when I’m on the pitch.”John Stones
The foundation of this partnership appears to be trust and the appreciation of a collective effort.
John Stones on his partnership with Dias
“It’s been great for me to play alongside him. He is so easy to get on with on and off the pitch. We kept a lot of clean sheets and we have just clicked. When it happens like that, you just enjoy playing football. I’m definitely enjoying playing with him and hopefully we can continue for a long time.”
“The connection with John has been just brilliant. “But I would like to say that it’s not just me and John. A brilliant example of that, I think it was against Brighton.
“We were winning 1-0 but struggling and then I see Kevin and Gundo dying on the pitch. You know, running back, running forwards. Dying.
“Trust is given. Trust is earned. So when you start to build that defensive point of view, if we’re not conceding, we’re closer to winning, and then everyone starts to believe in it.
“They see your will to accomplish that. That makes this team strong.”Ruben Dias
Pep loves to have the ball and build from the back, starving the opponent of the ball. This is evident with their league-leading 64.5% possession average per game. John Stones has the highest passing accuracy (94%) in the team and the league , closely followed by Ruben Dias (93%).
The passing abilities of this pairing allows the team to build with confidence from the back and dominate teams. The team can also sit back when they need to because they are confident with John Stones and Ruben Dias, and this gives them a chance to lure you out and hit you on the break.
The respect and chemistry between this two is a solid foundation that has helped the team mount a title challenge without sacrificing defensive shape.
Sinclair speaking on the Ruben Dias and John Stones
“They look like they’re a really good contrast of players; one of them wants to head the ball, Ruben Dias is a really good talker and John Stones’ stats… he’s played eight, won seven and drawn one and lost none.
This defensive partnership might be too young to be tagged as the next big thing but their performance so far has taken Manchester City this far. The trust, communication, and hunger to do better are what drives this partnership.
“The other day someone said to me here in the club, ‘Ah, amazing, another clean sheet and I just said the thing that gives me most pleasure is not even the clean sheet.
“It’s the other team not even making one shot on goal. The thing that gives me the most pleasure is that my keeper doesn’t make a save.Ruben Dias
This sort of attitude is what makes champions and keeps the best at the top.
*Sorry, another music switch – I’ll be there for you by The Rembrandts*
Pep Guardiola is a man blessed with options, but dropping the important stones that form the solid foundation of his defensive architecture should not be an option right now.
They have proven that they will always be there even when the rain starts pouring.