And so the Carabao kings march on. In the course of Pep Guardiola’s four years at Manchester City a fair degree of energy has been expended arguing over how much the great midfield-fetishist, the don of keep-ball, has changed English football. Who knew English football would end up changing him too?
City took the lead in this League Cup semi final with a set piece goal on 50 minutes, bundled in by a 6ft 5in English centre-half. They sealed the win with a long-range shot from a defensive midfielder, three minutes after bringing on a second defensive midfielder to help draw even further down some expertly maintained defensive shutters.
The opening goal was reward for a fine delivery from the left, John Stones finding the right run at the right moment and seeing the ball deflected into the goal off what the TV commentator insisted on calling his “inner thigh”. Stones indeed.
Above all the moment was a nice little bonus, something extra in the stocking for Stones, who has emerged as a quietly imperious figure in this improved Manchester City defence.
Much has been made of City’s solidity while Stones has happened to be back in the team. It would be facile to attribute this simply to his long-striding sense of cool, his settled form, the absence of errors.
The tightness at the back has been systemic, fruits of Guardiola’s more cautiously mannered approach this season. But Stones has taken his chance, and was once again a hugely impressive figure here, completing 96 % of his passes – often meaningless number, but a reflection of his ease on the ball, his careful positioning, and of the extra ballast given by a toughened midfield screen, the more cautious full-back line-up.
It has been a good time of late to be a Manchester City centre-back, if only because the team has seemed more committed to the basic idea of defending. Stones has shone in that role. Having dropped off the radar for so long he looks like the most assured English centre half in the league and a sure thing for an England return.
Stones has also found the world turning his way at City. At times in this semi-final there were glimpses of something unexpected – not just solid Pep, but direct football Pep, long-ball Pep, a Pep who seeks POMO, works the mixer, launches the diagonal, and plays, of all things, the percentages.
This is of course a massive overstatement. Guardiola still lined his team up here with Kevin De Bruyne as a nominal false nine, and seven career midfielders (one converted). And City dominated possession, taking 70 per cent of the ball by the 40-minute mark, committing fearlessly to ball retention, to full-backs stepping into the middle, rotation of positions.
But there have been some tonal, textural changes to this City team, and they were fascinatingly present in this cup tie. This has involved a period of locking down, and general barricade-manning in recent weeks.
The evolution has been towards this greater defensive density, shoring up the vulnerability to counter-attack with a two-man defensive midfield and less of the cavalry-charge overlapping.
Here Fernandinho returned to the team and produced a stately masterclass in unhurried defensive playmaking, as City steadily took the air out of United’s fast, high-pressing start.
This City tend to reel their opponents in rather than win games in the opening ten minutes, as they did in the early Pep peak years. And steadily they found their little eddies of influence down the side of the United full-backs. An overlapping run from Raheem Sterling opened space for De Bruyne to clunk a shot against the post.
That flood-the-centre false nine system has arrived out of necessity, Guardiola having lost both his centre forwards. But it is also a style he has fancied in the past, and been diverted away from for the last four years by the fact he happens to have inherited a world class finisher.
Another side effect of the more cautious system is the move from inverted winger to simply wingers, a shift that led directly to the barbecuing of Chelsea’s full-backs on Sunday afternoon, neither of whom were prepared for constant old-school foot races to the byline.
It is another fruit of that more cautious style. This City team has been coached to be less open to counter attack, not to commit to overlaps with such abandon – and without a full-back in the outside lane the width has to come from somewhere.
So City dominated the ball but kept their guard high. Stones and Rúben Dias defended brilliantly at times. With 25 minutes gone Dias produced an astonishing full body slide-block as Marcus Rashford shot at goal, having found just the right angle to bury a shot in the corner.
And it was in that first half period City were happy to launch long passes into the wilderness of the United half, 16 of them from defence in the opening 35 minutes, taking the safe option, refusing to over commit, playing the percentages.
The second half brought something more: goals, control, greater forward pressure – and now a fourth League Cup final in four years for this next-gen City team.
Guardiola’s caution helps Stones shine and get back on England radar The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ The Guardian.