ROB DRAPER: How Stones' movement into midfield messed with Vinicius Jr

THE TACTICS BOARD: How John Stones’ clever movement left Vinicius completely discombobulated at the Etihad… the Man City star’s aggression and driving runs totally messed with Real Madrid’s system – and their heads

  • John Stones’ movement in midfield was key to Man City outclassing Real Madrid 
  • Vinicius Jr was left perplexed by his clever runs that messed up Madrid’s tactics 
  • Stones dragged players with him into pockets, which tore Los Blancos apart 

A lot has been made of how Kyle Walker won his battle with Vinicius on Wednesady night. And he really did. But it was also the John Stones show.

It’s perhaps been a little overlooked, but Stones’ movement into midfield was absolutely key. A bit like the Arsenal game at The Etihad, the first 20 minutes were the foundations of the win. 

Real Madrid were completely discombobulated by City’s movement, their game plan completely undone. It was the classic Pep trope: ‘It looks like his team had an extra player on the pitch.’ In a way, they did. Here’s why:

You could see as early as four minutes into the Vinicius was getting in a muddle and panicking with this out ball, which went straight to a City player on the far side. 

It was a wild pass and clearance and it’s because City pinned back Real Madrid’s most dangerous player into an unfamiliar area. At that early stage it had everything to do with Walker pushing on.

John Stones’ incredible midfield display left Vinicius Jr – and Real Madrid – at sixes and sevens

Vinicius showed his early panic early on when he lost the ball after being pressed by Walker

A trademark Stones charge into midfield left Vinicius trailing in his wake just minutes later

But it was about to get worse for Vinicius and Real Madrid. This was typical of the next five minutes: a Stones charge into midfield and Vinícius suddenly realised he needed to chase him, as his team were short (and Benzema won’t be doing that).

This particular attack came to nothing but Vinícius was now left worrying about Stones and pinned back near his penalty area D. 

This was a disaster for Real Madrid. It’s fine at times to play with 20 per cent possession, as they did in this first half. And you can even be in control of the game like that, as they were in the first leg. 

But what you need is an out ball, a threat on the counter. You need to keep City worrying. With Vinicius on the left, high up the pitch, that was always going to preoccupy City. 

When Ancelotti’s Real Madrid beat Pep’s Bayern 4-0 in the 2014 semi-final, using Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo like this was the perfect plan, despite Real having only 30 per cent possession.

A couple of minutes later, Stones was lingering upfield and had a chance for a shot. It came to nothing but the key is that Vinicius was again back, worrying about him.

Stones was a menace for the whole 90 minutes as he gave City an extra outlet in midfield 

Vinicius ended up being pinned near the D of his own penalty area (L) – before the forward was forced to drop deep again to close down Stones’ long-range effort (R)

Eventually Vinicius decided to give up chasing Stones and let Luka Modric take up the job 

By this point he must have been thinking, ‘This is stupid. I’m no use back here.’ So the next time Stones made a charge, just 41 seconds later, he decided to leave him and let Luka Modric deal with it.

Problem is, this led directly to the first Erling Haaland header, from which he should have scored as it was cleared off the line. Vinicius was now in a quandary. He couldn’t leave Stones as City really had the extra man at that point. But worrying about him completely ruined his threat and Real Madrid’s whole game plan.

City were now in his head. So a few minutes later he was trudging back on defensive duties, worried what will happen if he didn’t.

Vinicius trudges back on his defensive duties – but having to worry about Stones completely nullified his offensive threat

It was a bad night all round for Vinicius, who was unable to showcase his ability on the ball 

He was massively unsettled and wanted some help. On 21 minutes he was shouting at his midfielders, arms outstretched, presumably saying: ‘Give me some help!’ 

And just a few seconds later Stones got the ball, as Vinicius predicted, and was running back gesturing to his midfielders, probably saying: ‘You have to close him down! Fill that space!’

Real Madrid were being pulled apart at this stage. They were about to go 1-0 down and you could see what Vinicius’ state of mind was in the run up to that.

The 22-year-old held his arms out in frustration to ask his team-mates for help before urging them to close him down to no avail

John Stones played the pass back for the move that directly leds to Bernardo Silva’s opener. But why were Real Madrid so easily picked apart? Because Stones attracted both Vinicius and Toni Kroos into that area. And even Eduardo Camavinga was distracted, looking over his shoulder and losing track of Silva before his goal.

Vinicius was then seen speaking to Ancelotti saying: ‘What am I supposed to do?!’ 

Suffice to say, they didn’t find an answer. Though it was only 1-0 at this stage, the reason why Real Madrid we’re struggling so much is that this simple, aggressive movement of Stones had messed with their system and their heads.

It was very similar in tone to what Pep did to Thomas Partey in the Arsenal game, but that was by dropping Erling Haaland deep. 

Messing with one player’s head and targeting a specific area can completely ruin an opponent’s game plan.

Madrid were easily picked apart in the build up to Bernardo Silva’s opener because Stones attracted Vinícius and Toni Kroos into a tight area. Camavinga is also disracted and loses Silva

Vinicius was seen gesticulating to boss Carlo Ancelotti, saying ‘What am I supposed to do?’

What puzzles me a little was that the Haaland move on Arsenal was new and unexpected, so was harder to react to. Stones in midfield was highly predictable so it’s odd that Real Madrid couldn’t cope.

My guess is that we’re finally seeing the limits of a 37 year old Luka Modric and that a midfield of Jude Bellingham, Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni will physically be better able to deal with this.

It is now a default City plan, which gives them an extra midfielder. What you really don’t want is your most dangerous attacking outlet, like Vinicius, taken out of the game by it. 

Maybe a bold back three would be better, to get an extra man in midfield.

I’m not sure it’s a job for your centre forward, unless you play a Wout Weghorst, ask him to track back and accept your attacking threat is only on the flanks, which might be a plan for Manchester United in the FA Cup final. 

But you can’t allow City to dictate where your winger is playing. City did this quite brilliantly. They effectively neutered Vinicius by making him play in areas where he’s no good to anyone.

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