Manchester City purrs once again despite stumbling over the formula of success

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On a Dias Laporte safety, Guardiola wanted to construct a new cathedral, but Stones has emerged as a key to the team’s resurgence

Soccer seems almost purposely contradictory sometimes, as though it delights in frustrating those who attempt to plan a logical path through it. You’re willing to plan and plan and plan. One may have a boss who is known for his attention to detail. You can research all the details, watch all the videos, think and prepare and ponder, devise your grand plan, and then it turns out that John Stones was the response all along.

Everyone said that Manchester City needed a center back for the right side. They had Aymeric Laporte, who was potentially Virgil van Dijk’s best center back in the league, but he prefers the left hand, so it was City’s job this summer to find someone to play alongside him.

It was decided in that region that recruiting had gone a little awry.

Nathan Aké from Bournemouth was signed for £ 41 million by them, the first experienced central defender City signed in January 2018 since Laporte.

But the one that’s playing on the left.

A player from the team, then: cover, back-up for Laporte.

Aké played in the first two games of the season, conceding five goals against Leicester in the second city. He’s only been in three league games in the starting eleven since then, and considering the last two were against West Brom and Newcastle United, two of the five teams with the least goals in the league, it’s fair to say that he’s going to be used against less dangerous rivals to save the front line.

But City hit then.

Rúben Dias, plus Nicolás Otamendi for £ 61.5.

The first experienced player City had purchased in that role since Stones in August 2016 as a central defender for the right side. So that was the future: Dias and Laporte, the rock upon which the new cathedral of Pep Guardiola will be constructed.

And this season, Dias has excelled. Few central defenders, with all their long crosses and elbows and second balls, have adapted to the Premier League so unobtrusively. The galvanizing impact he has, his unexciting authority, has drawn parallels to Van Dijk that are maybe premature but not unfounded. The difference is profound between City now and the permeability of the Leicester game.

But he didn’t do it on the right side of the central defense, he did it on the left side of the defense, and there were Stones next to him. As it turns out, the solution was there all along.

Stones is one of those unfortunate players who for a wider discussion has become a cipher.

It’s never just about him or his form: discussions often end up in debates about the essence of defending and how to act with central defenders.

He became a symbol of a new era when Everton signed him from Barnsley: an angular, slightly lanky figure who excelled in his knowledge and passing of the game rather than in conventional defensive skills such as heading, tackling and marking.

It’s an idea with which English soccer has never quite come to terms.

Like all young defenders do, Stones made mistakes, as do all defenders, especially those who are expected to play as offensively as he did, and each one felt like a blow to the entire idea of defending that he represents. In the 2019 Nations League semifinals, maybe the nadir came in England’s defeat to the Netherlands. However many errors could be tolerated, there were too many, for the advantages his ability to pass out from the back offered.

Crumbled shape and trust.

He started just 12 league games last season. He only played one of the first nine this season.

At 26, he felt like the guy of yesterday.

But then, in late November, he joined the squad against Burnley.

Since then, when he was on the pitch, Callum Hudson-largely Odoi’s inconsequential late strike for Chelsea on Sunday was the only objective City had conceded.

The partnership between Stones and Dias was once again excellent against Manchester United on Wednesday, and Stones’ goal was a welcome bonus. In a high-scoring game, United didn’t play badly, but the danger they presented was largely limited to a few long-range goals, a couple of passes, and some highly ambitious demands for penalties. Not only in his goal, but also in the way he protected space from the Stones and Dias, Fernandinho was outstanding and put Bruno Fernandes in his place.

This season, City have been quite unfocused. They have been lacking

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