Well, it finally happened. The biggest surprise is that it took Manchester City this long to win the Champions League, but as Sheikh Mansour watched on for only the second time (after taking in a Liverpool game in 2010, as it happens), his expensive project finally delivered the ultimate prize, much to the delight of Pep Guardiola.

Of course, even near-bottomless resources do not guarantee victory, as evidenced by the fact that Manchester City has been able to beat PSG to a maiden Champions League title. The role of Guardiola cannot be ignored — the owners saw that a marquee name for the dugout was even more important than flashy additions on the pitch, and one of the generation’s foremost coaches has undoubtedly built on his already-impressive reputation.

The man who shaped an entire tactical cycle within the sport through his use of tiki-taka at Barcelona has not stood still, continuing to evolve. He must thank his rivals for that, with the challenge posed by Liverpool, among others, central to Guardiola’s development. In a treble-winning campaign fueled by aggressive pressing, there were more than a few shades of Jürgen Klopp.

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But perhaps the biggest development this season has been Guardiola’s use of John Stones. An early addition when the Catalan took the helm, he arrived as a symbol of the pass-from-the-back game about to be instilled. But it has been a winding road since then, with the former Everton man in and out of favor.

In 2022/23, he has been one of the key figures. In a tactical shift already mirrored by the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal, Guardiola has been experimenting with committing an extra player to the offensive phases of play, instructing a defender to adopt an entirely new position when in possession. At Manchester City, that man has more often than not been Stones.

The approach has been modified at Liverpool, where Trent Alexander-Arnold shifts up and across from right-back to bolster the midfield numbers. The center-backs shuffle sideways rather than forward to accommodate Andy Robertson in a back three.

In one sense, this is little more than Klopp and Guardiola making the most of the skill sets at their disposal; it just so happens that the greatest defensive technician at Anfield is a right-back, while at Manchester City he is a center-back. But long before the Alexander-Arnold experiment, Liverpool had something akin to its own version of Stones.

Joël Matip joined Liverpool in 2016, the same summer that Guardiola added Stones. With Klopp having now had the pleasure of working with him for the last eight years, he will not have been stunned by the way the Champions League final played out.

It’s not a stretch to say that Manchester City may well have lost to Inter Milan were it not for Stones. The Italians got their tactics more or less spot on, and all of the usual playmaking suspects in Guardiola’s side were stifled by some precision pressing. Only one man seemed to be consistently free in the midfield, and it was through him that the English side established at least some semblance of its usual supremacy.

John Stones of Manchester City in action against Inter during the UEFA Champions League final match between Manchester City and Inter at Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul, Turkiye on June 10, 2023.
Liverpool already has its own answer to John Stones, a key part of Pep Guardiola's overdue Champions League triumph.

Admittedly, it was undoubtedly an outlier of a performance, with Stones completing a scarcely believable six successful take-ons in the Champions League showpiece in Istanbul (FBref). That’s as many as he has completed in the league all season. But while he is not usually to be found jinking past his man, he has established himself as a reliable progressor of the ball, a trait that Matip also boasts.

Like Stones, he is not necessarily a dribbler by trade, with his best campaign coming in 2021/22: out of 10 attempts, he completed nine. But until this season, his success rate had never fallen below 75 per cent — he is undoubtedly comfortable on the ball, and in the right circumstances could conceivably enjoy a game like the ones Stones had against Inter.

In the progression stakes, Matip is unmatched. His 2.36 progressive carries per 90 place him in the 99th percentile of center-backs across Europe’s top five leagues, dwarfing Stones’ 1.42 (itself good enough for a 92nd percentile ranking). Perhaps surprisingly, the Liverpool man makes marginally more progressive passes too.

This has certainly not been Matip’s greatest season. But even at Liverpool’s lowest ebb, there has been a sense he can make something happen — at times, he has been the only one who looks capable. Quite simply, even the best-laid defensive plan does not yet seem to have found a way to truly deal with the center-back popping up on the edge of the opposing penalty area.

Even with his side’s dominance, Guardiola has not yet felt able to commit two of his defenders into the midfield when in possession of the ball, so it seems highly unlikely that Liverpool will be letting Matip and Alexander-Arnold off the leash together any time soon. The mere thought of the vulnerability in transition is enough to make Klopp shudder after the season he just endured.

But perhaps if Alexander-Arnold is to make the permanent switch to midfield, or even if Klopp wants to spring a tactical surprise in a particular game, he could turn to Matip as an auxiliary midfielder. Not for the first time, the defender has had to put up with certain Liverpool fans writing him off, citing his age and contract situation as a reason to sell this summer. But he is younger than Virgil van Dijk, and still has the quality to play a very important role.

Of course, Klopp will want to keep integrating Ibrahima Konaté into the side. But Guardiola’s use of Stones has shown just how valuable a defender like Matip can be — Manchester City just reaped the ultimate Champions League reward, and that should remind Liverpool not to take for granted the playmaking weapon at its disposal.