John Stones and Ruben Dias are Manchester City’s WONDER WALL… The Englishman has added a watchfulness to his game this season, while the Portuguese has transformed the team and looks certain to be a future captain
- Centre-backs John Stones and Ruben Dias have been crucial for Manchester City
- Stones is now performing consistently and Dias has transformed the team
- Oleksandr Zinchenko, meanwhile, has worked hard and is making a big impact
Of all the moments that have made up the rebirth of John Stones, one relatively rudimentary decision stands out and captures the essence of his resurgence.
Manchester City held a one-goal lead at the Emirates back in February. The game was growing old and Arsenal still had a sniff of an unlikely point. City briefly found themselves under a bit of pressure.
Stones was heading towards his own goal, mopping up as the last man, but had a silent runner in the vicinity, lurking to pounce on a sloppy back pass.
The centre-back pairing of John Stones and Ruben Dias has been key for Manchester City
Twelve months prior, Stones might have played that pass back to Ederson blind. But this time he did not, instead checking his surroundings, spotting the attacker out of the corner of his eye. The ball back to his keeper was careful. City moved up the pitch and kept a clean sheet. They usually keep clean sheets when he is in the team.
That is not to say Stones did not operate with care before but there has been a noticeable watchfulness to his game this year. That sort of decision-making at Arsenal — simple, basic stuff — is what he takes pleasure in these days and it was evident on Tuesday night.
Another shutout, this time against Neymar and Paris Saint-Germain, saw City through to a first Champions League final.
Stones has shown major signs of improvement and is so adept at reading defensive situations
So adept at reading defensive situations, Stones was the only outfield player not to attempt a tackle all night, while his partner, the stately Ruben Dias, has transformed the team and those around him.
The pair made five crucial blocks between them and completed eight clearances — an immovable wall as PSG scrambled for a goal.
In the 24 matches Stones and Dias have started together, City have kept more clean sheets (16) than they have conceded goals (9), with 22 victories. It helps that the two men have grown close.
‘Ruben took one (shot) straight in the head on Tuesday which I couldn’t believe,’ said Kyle Walker. ‘That is what he does. He loves it, he loves defending and I think all of us love defending.’
Walker, whose own game has improved immeasurably due to the stiff competition with Joao Cancelo, is right. The high-fiving and bear hugs after crucial defending have been a hallmark of their success in a campaign that may end in a Treble.
Ruben Dias has helped to transform the team since he made the £62million move from Benfica
Dias cost £62million from Benfica days after an horrific 5-2 home defeat by Leicester City in September. A portion of that fee was offset by Nicolas Otamendi heading the other way for £15m — particularly shrewd business.
The Portugal international —who only turns 24 next week — is talked about as a future captain and is almost certain to earn enough player votes to form one-fifth of next season’s leadership group. He is intense, dedicated to his craft. City’s official twitter account has hopped on the ‘Father Ruben’ nickname handed to him by supporters.
‘The thing that gives me most pleasure is not even the clean sheet,’ Dias told Sportsmail in January. ‘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. If not me, then who else will take pride from defending? It gives me pleasure to make the other team feel powerless.’
Dias will have been particularly pleased with the last three halves against PSG as Mauricio Pochettino’s side did not force Ederson into a single save.
That is not just because of Dias and Stones. It was — and will always be — a collective effort.
Oleksandr Zinchenko is a shining example. This is his fourth campaign at the Etihad and he has never gone into one as the first-choice left back. Moreover, he isn’t even a left back. But he has consistently made that position his own later in seasons and this one is no different.
Oleksandr Zinchenko has continued to work hard and is now showing his worth for City
Defensively he is more robust, cutting out mistakes, and retains an attacking zeal from growing up as a winger — shown in the build-up to Riyad Mahrez’s opening goal in the second leg.
There were eyebrows raised around City when Zinchenko rejected a move to Wolves in 2018, preferring instead to fight for his place. Some could not understand it, insisting he would not get a look in. The Ukrainian told the media on that pre-season tour that staying in Manchester was his ‘dream’.
Zinchenko and Stones are linked in that regard. Both have fought against the odds within this squad. Stones was never leaving last summer but was so far down the pecking order that the idea of him going to the European Championship felt absurd.
Now it would be ridiculous if he did not play every minute for England this summer.
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