As some of Manchester City’s players filed into Club Liv along Deansgate on Wednesday night, to celebrate what was a crowning performance of Pep Guardiola’s reign with a private party, it is not difficult to imagine one particular song earning an airing once members of the squad assembled.
A terrace favourite these days, John Stones is serenaded as much as anybody else. His close friend, Kyle Walker, sings his name down the corridors of the training ground and – given the lyrics are just Johnny, Johnny Stones – it’s not a difficult one to grasp. Nice ring to it, regardless.
Stones is the embodiment of City’s turnaround this season, which went from trailing Arsenal by a sizeable margin to being three victories away from becoming only the second English team in history to lift a Treble.
Three of Gareth Southgate’s regulars have acted as essential elements in City’s tilt at greatness. Alongside Stones and Walker stands Jack Grealish, his style more Brazilian than Real Madrid’s Samba pair on the night in a further show that he not only belongs at this level but thrives when the lights are brighter. His realisation of his own powers has been a standout story in City’s season.
In the shorter term, Stones has unlocked something in them. He studied the role of first switching between right back and central midfield and then truly blossomed when Pep Guardiola scrapped that idea and had him moving vertically from centre half up to Rodri instead.
Man City reached the Champions League final with a 5-1 aggregate win over Real Madrid
John Stones is the embodiment of City’s turnaround this season, which went from trailing Arsenal by a sizeable margin to being three victories away from a historic Treble
Stones ran the opening 25 minutes of the Champions League semi-final second leg; Real had no clue how to deal with him.
Last week Carlo Ancelotti had allowed both Stones and Rodri to have it, retreated and engaged when the main attacking protagonists picked up possession.
This time that option was taken from them, Stones more progressive and aggressive in his running, occupying uncomfortable spaces. City swarmed Real as a collective but unlocked something in Stones.
He didn’t make a single tackle all night, the only City player not to other than Erling Haaland. Elite readers don’t concern themselves with tackling. ‘I’m not a coach for the tackles,’ Guardiola once said. How everybody laughed.
That was seven years ago – and it is only three since Stones might have headed for the Etihad exits. City were open to offers, and started Eric Garcia and Fernandinho ahead of him for Guardiola’s nadir, a 3-1 defeat by Lyon in the quarter-finals. Stones, though, forcefully insisted that he would fight for his place and how glad of that they are now.
Kyle Walker has also gone from the fringes to undroppable as he shackled Vinicius Junior
Elsewhere, Jack Grealish (left) is flying, while Phil Foden (right) reminded us of his brilliance
Not just anybody is capable of this intelligence, knowing when to drop into a back four and when to gallivant upfield. Guardiola made a pointed remark a few weeks back that Walker could not – and it was taken to mean that the 32-year-old would effectively sit watching the quest for all three trophies.
But Walker, who admitted to have done some soul searching after that, has gone from completely out of the picture to undroppable in under a month. It’s helped by Rodri’s extra help coming from the centre of the pitch and not full back and so he is left to do what he does best: controlling the finest wingers in Europe. And at great speed. Frightening speed for someone approaching a career’s twilight.
Vinicius Junior, probably the most electrifying on display at this moment in time, was reduced to complaining and getting an earful from City players for perceived diving, not registering a successful dribble all game.
Walker, who recently clocked a top speed of 23.3mph, twice stopped him from inflicting damage when racing clear. One in the first half, when Vinicius appeared to have yards as a head start, presented a spectacle as a standalone piece of action.
‘You’ve got to have a little bit of arrogance like the attackers do,’ Walker said. ‘If you can get that arm across, their balance goes.’
Walker, superb. Stones, superb. And two other English lads were up there as well. Although with an artist’s touch, Phil Foden has more splinters than he would like but reminded Guardiola of his enduring quality with a deft assist for Julian Alvarez.
Last night’s sensational win was a crowning performance of Pep Guardiola’s reign at the club
Foden has been a victim of circumstance, Riyad Mahrez excelling on the right and Bernardo Silva chosen for the biggest matches for added control.
And then there is Grealish over the other side. Grealish – whose growing confidence saw him take five Real men out of the game with one dribble – is producing weekly now, creating more chances than any Englishman ever has in a Champions League season. More demanding of his teammates, a bit more selfish, but with a smart presence of mind to react to situations.
Still Jack the lad, still accidentally cursing in flash interviews on the tele and pinching himself that all of this is happening, but with a wiser head and a greater understanding of the game. Guardiola tends to do that to his players.
When City led by two, and Real had a couple of threatening forays, the ball broke near halfway and many others would have tried to set away the only man ahead, Haaland. Grealish saw they were majorly outnumbered, checked inside, slowed the game down.
City wasted a few seconds, regained their shape to protect a transition. Guardiola adored it, blowing air kisses in Grealish’s direction from his technical area. A touch theatrical perhaps but this was a show worthy of a bit of that.