Football News

Explained: John Stones’ role and what it could mean for the future of centre-backs

By Harry Edwards

Published: 14:33, 13 March 2024

Could Pep Guardiola be moulding the future centre-back role in John Stones?

Over the years, we’ve seen different styles of centre-backs. The two main ones have been the no-nonsense centre-backs that many still remember fondly, with no bells and whistles; and then you’ve got the ball-playing centre-back. We see the ball-playing centre-back more often than not now as teams look to build the back from defence, particularly under pressure.

And then there’s John Stones. The Englishman’s role isn’t something new to the season, we saw him feature as Man City won the Champions League. But what exactly is it?

Depending on how you take starting line-ups, Stones either begins as a centre-back or a midfielder for Man City. In reality, it’s a hybrid role for the Englishman, who provides a transition between the defence and midfield.

With Stones alongside Rodri, the back three consists of one right-back, one centre-back and another centre-back capable of playing as a left-back. So it’s a functional back three, but also has the capability of reverting to a back four seamlessly, if required.

Just over 500 of Stones’ minutes as  starter in the Premier League this season have come in midfield positions. Defensive minutes still just about edge it, but it’s now so close.

It allows Man City to overload when on the ball further up the pitch, having often started their moves with Stones alongside the back line. When they don’t have the ball, it’s more of a standard back four. Moving a defender into midfield is something Guardiola and other managers have experimented with in the past, but it’s usually a full-back doing it. We’ve seen Joao Cancelo, Oleksandr Zinchenko and others utilised in that role. But a centre-back? That was new for Guardiola.

And it’s clear to see the differences in Stones’ game. This season, his interceptions per 90 minutes in the Premier League have almost doubled (from 0.44 to 0.85) now that he’s in a position to cut out passes higher up the pitch. Although he is making fewer passes in general (73.59 to 65.26 per 90), Stones is attempting more final third passes with a jump from 12.52 per 90 to 16.72.

Stones is also able to use his knowledge of the hybrid role to enhance his game, as he recently explained.

“Playing in there you appreciate other people’s roles and see their positions from a different perspective,” Stones told Man City’s podcast last month.

“You realise when sometimes I might give a pass into a midfielder but being on the receiving end of that, you know that that’s the wrong pass or the wrong position to give it. You appreciate someone else’s role in the team.”

Stones has always been a fine ball-playing defender, which is what made him so perfect for this new role. But he’s even pushing himself further up the pitch, which can only be a worry for opponents and it allows Man City’s brighter attackers to advance without the ball.

Former Manchester United defender Wes Brown was high in praise of Stones, and even tipped his role as becoming the future of defending.

“I mean, I wouldn’t say Stones was underrated but I really like the way he can change position,” he told Squawka when asked about underrated centre-backs.

“If anything, it’s the future of centre back in a way, the way you can adapt to moving up very – not bravely – but very cleverly, and just getting in into midfield and striking positions at times where, you know, teams actually don’t know what to do with him because he’s in like an extra player in there.

“So I say Stones.”

Wes Brown was speaking to Squawka on behalf of