Bournemouth 0 Manchester City 1: Roaming Stones and Haaland’s early substitution

Manchester City moved back to within a point of Premier League leaders Liverpool by beating Bournemouth at the Vitality Stadium.

City dominated possession in the first half and after Erling Haaland clipped a good chance wide, Neto saved from the Norwegian only for Phil Foden to score from the rebound on 24 minutes.

Bournemouth grew into the game in the second half and Ederson had to save well from a Dominic Solanke header on 67 minutes. Pep Guardiola was able to bring on players such as Kevin De Bruyne and Jeremy Doku from the bench (and take off Haaland) to see the game out, even if former City player Enes Unal threatened with a late header.

Here The Athletic’s Sam Lee analyses the key talking points from the game.

A couple of weeks ago against Everton, Pep Guardiola moved both Manuel Akanji and John Stones into midfield when City had the ball, which was a new one. It did not work especially well on that occasion, though, and so before 15 minutes had passed there was a change, with just Akanji staying in the midfield position, and Stones holding back.

There will have been some very good reasons for Guardiola doing that, but it still raises the question for us mortals: why use Akanji in midfield when you can use Stones? Of course, for much of the season there has not been a choice, as Stones has been injured. Guardiola has also tried other ways to get a defender up the pitch and allow City to have an ‘extra man’ in attack, with Kyle Walker moving up the right wing and squeezing the actual right winger into the middle, and even Walker and Josko Gvardiol covering both flanks and squeezing both wingers inside.

That could continue to be a good solution when Gvardiol is back from injury but, on Saturday evening, Stones showed that there is no point throwing the baby out with the bathwater as he rolled back the clock to the end of last season, popping up in all sorts of advanced positions (see above), even underlapping his wide man on the wing, and he looked majestic doing so.

What won it for City?

It really did feel like the glory days of last season before half-time, with Stones getting himself into midfield but also plenty of technicians packing the middle and helping City strangle a game. Guardiola’s men have made a habit of bossing games at Bournemouth, famously stopping them from registering a single shot, or even winning a corner, around this time five years ago.

They had looked incapable of that sort of control in the past couple of games, suffering counter-attacks against Chelsea and Brentford (the former were far more threatening), but they were able to bypass Bournemouth’s high press and dominate the match with Foden and Bernardo Silva combining in the middle with Rodri and Mateo Kovacic, leaving Haaland and Matheus Nunes as targets for longer balls.

But that control evaporated as the second half went on and the closing stages became more about another trait from the end of last season: ‘proper’ defending. That is what Guardiola attributed their treble victory to and despite some much more shaky defending this season, their back line looked very assured when they needed to be. Stones, Nathan Ake, Ruben Dias and particularly Akanji, as well as Ederson, stood firm just as they did in the biggest matches last season, helping City to a victory that should have been more comfortable if they had made their first-half advantage count. Bournemouth did let them off the hook once or twice, too.

Why was Erling Haaland taken off early?

There was a bit of controversy about Guardiola’s decisions to substitute Haaland last season, but only because some commenters in Spain had suggested he did it to protect some Lionel Messi’s goal records. That was nonsense but the pattern was obvious: Haaland was only ever taken off once Guardiola deemed the game essentially over — and for him that would almost always be a three-goal cushion.

Guardiola always wants Haaland on the pitch, even in those games when he is not having many touches or City are not finding him, just because of what he could do if the ball comes his way, and because of the options it gives his team when it goes to the more direct route. So it was fairly unusual to see him come off with 15 minutes to go at Bournemouth, with the home side still very much threatening an equaliser.

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Guardiola greets a substituted Haaland (Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

His recent injury might have meant that there is a greater need to keep him fresh for coming challenges, or perhaps Guardiola felt that he was so ineffective when it came to holding the ball up that Julian Alvarez, much more comfortable at that side of things, but less of an explosive threat, might help his side see the job through. It was not that Haaland was terrible on the night, it was just strange to see him withdrawn with the game still in the balance, possibly the first time ever.

What did Guardiola say?

We will bring you this after he has spoken at the post-match press conference.

What next for City?

Tuesday, February 27: Luton Town (A), FA Cup fifth round, 8pm GMT, 3pm ET

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(Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

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