Not so long ago, Pep Guardiola faced a bit of a head-scratcher as Manchester City’s season threatened to fall apart. Erling Haaland had given City a sharper cutting edge in front of goal, but he was too isolated in too many matches. On top of this, Joao Cancelo’s January exit left Guardiola short of full backs. City needed a solution and it turned out to be John Stones.
By pushing Stones into central midfield, Guardiola remoulded his defence into a back three. It also permitted Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan to push further up the pitch, placing them closer to Haaland and ensuring the Norwegian striker was always connected to the rest of the team. It worked sensationally well, helping Manchester City to an historic Treble.
This has surely given Gareth Southgate food for thought. Stones is included in the England squad for the upcoming Euro 2024 qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia and while it’s most likely he will play in central defence, as he almost always does for the Three Lions, one wonders if Southgate could use him in the middle like Guardiola does.
“We thought at times, in the past, about playing him as a midfielder when we didn’t have one before Declan [Rice] and Kalvin [Phillips] came in, but we have always needed him at centre-back… we need to get as many of our best players on the pitch as possible,” said Southgate when asked about how he views Stones and where he could play for England.
Southgate has favoured a double pivot in midfield in recent times and so it’s easy to envisage Stones feeling comfortable in this shape considering he plays in a similar one for Manchester City. Rather than Rodri being Stones’ central midfield partner, it would probably be Jude Bellingham or Declan Rice for England.
A double pivot of Rice and Stones would be a conservative option for England and could useful in matches where the Three Lions want to control possession and limit how many times they are caught out in moments of opposition transition. Against Malta and North Macedonia, though, England could afford to open up their midfield a bit more.
Stones could feasibly forge a partnership with Bellingham who is a box-to-box operator and does a good job of linking England’s midfield and attack. However, Rice already performs this role well and so there’s no desperate need for Southgate to replace the West Ham midfielder with Stones. What would it truly achieve?
It’s not impossible that Southgate could use Bellingham, Rice and Stones in a midfield three. This would give England control of the ball, but also the personnel to create transition moments through the energy of Bellingham. It could be argued this would be the most complete form of England’s midfield.
Of course, it’s not uncommon to see Stones in the centre of the pitch for England. “We have always encouraged [Stones] to step into midfield but not quite as obviously as he is doing now,” said Southgate. “He has always had those attributes but he has managed it brilliantly. John had attributes when he was at Barnsley which would allow him to play slightly differently to how a traditional central defender, bar maybe Rio [Ferdinand].”
The problem with pushing Stones into central midfield as an England player is it’s not clear who would fill in for him in central defence or how Southgate would reshape his backline. While Stones was the solution to a problem for Manchester City, using him in midfield would be a solution in search of a problem for England.
The post Could Southgate copy Guardiola by using Stones in midfield? appeared first on Colossus Blog.