Man City find their Kyle Walker replacement but two players rue missed Champions League chance – Alex Brotherton

Pep Guardiola’s team selection for Manchester City’s 2-0 Premier League win against Brentford on Wednesday evening gave a pretty clear indication of how he will address a dilemma facing him in the Champions League.

Thanks to a needless red card picked up in the final group stage game against RB Leipzig back in December, Kyle Walker will be out of European action for a while. City have appealed the three-match suspension handed to him by UEFA for a challenge made on Andre Silva, but at the very least he will miss the first leg of City’s round of 16 tie against Sporting next Tuesday.

While defenders are rarely viewed as City’s most important players, the fact is that they probably are. All four members of the backline play crucial roles in building attacks, with Walker bringing the added bonus of being able to use his pace to snuff out counter-attacks.

City will have to make do without him for one game at least and if the Brentford game is anything to go by, it will be John Stones who replaces him.

When the team news came out an hour before kick-off many assumed that Joao Cancelo would shift across to right-back, with Stones and Dias at centre-back and Aymeric Laporte on the left. Instead, though, Stones slotted straight in for Walker, allowing the other three to stay in their usual positions.

So what does this mean for everyone involved?

John Stones was impressive at right-back against Brentford as he passed his audition to deputize for Kyle Walker in the Champions League
John Stones was impressive at right-back against Brentford as he passed his audition to deputize for Kyle Walker in the Champions League

Stones grew into the game well after a mixed first-half, which ended with him gifting Brentford a decent opportunity when he slipped as he tried to control a pass from Dias.

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That aside though, he looked right at home on the right side of defence. While he did not offer the overlapping option that Walker can, in the second half he played the role of the ‘inverted’ full-back well, moving inside to provide an extra body in central areas of the field.

Guardiola used his full-backs to break down a structured and compact Brentford defence, with Stones completing more passes and more progressive passes than any of his teammates.

His manager was certainly happy with his performance. “Without John, it wouldn’t be possible,” he said after City went 12 points clear at the top of the Premier League. “He read perfectly the movement to break their structure. He did it incredibly well.”

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Giving Stones minutes at right-back also allows Guardiola to keep him sharp, as it doesn’t look like Dias and Laporte will lose their starting centre-back spots any time soon.

It also allows Laporte to stay at left centre-back, a boost for City’s attacking prospects given that Guardiola regards him as the best left-footed centre-back for build-up play in the world.

Similarly, Stones’ inclusion allows Cancel to stay at left-back, a role that he has performed superbly all season. The Portugal international was again brilliant on Wednesday as he took four shots, completed five dribbles, made four tackles and three interceptions.

Guardiola’s new strategy for coping with Walker’s absence marks a departure from the approach he took during the packed festive period. Walker sat out six consecutive league games due to a combination of personal issues and illness.

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Stones started at right-back in the 7-0 demolition of Leeds but in the following two games, Pep played Cancelo on the right and Oleksandr Zinchenko on the left. In the wins away at Brentford and Arsenal that followed, Cancelo stayed on the right and Nathan Ake came in on the left. Both makeshift left-backs impressed, although it should be said that Stones was unavailable for selection for three of those games.

Ake and Zinchenko may feel that Walker’s suspension should afford them a chance but the reality is that if Guardiola can find a way of keeping Cancelo at left-back then he must do it.

Not only that, but Stones has been largely excellent on both occasions that he has played at right-back this season, as he has been able to use his progressive passing abilities in an inverted full-back role. City will miss Walker against Sporting but Stones is a more than capable replacement.

How do you think John Stones played at right-back? Follow our City Is Ours writer Alex Brotherton on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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