Player resurgences are seldom this resurgent. Such is the potency and popularity of club football these days that tribalism has only increased. Yet dotted around the Premier League are a few English players who English fans are desperate to watch succeed, no matter which badge their shirts bear. John Stones is one. In true feature film style, just as his supporters were beginning to turn away and cut their losses, Stones has found the finest form of his career.
Stones’ stock rose immeasurably during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Two goals against Panama in the group-stage were a quite considerable bonus, only possible because he was doing the bread and butter of what’s required from a modern-day marauding centre-back to great effect. People knew he could play football well. What they didn’t know was whether he could play football well consistently.Embed from Getty Images
This was first pondered by Stones’ most ardent critics and eager fans alike five, six, seven years ago, when he thrust himself into the limelight as Everton’s Barnsley-made wonderkid; few defenders are ever seen as being one of those. Signing for Manchester City is a big deal though, and Stones had to field these sorts of questions more regularly than ever before. Were they unfair? No, they certainly weren’t. Every possible version of the phrase “He’s got a mistake in him” has been said about the 26-year-old, and with good reason. He did take risks; he did make poor decisions; he did need a defensive partner who could tell him what to do and when.
But the best players take risks. The key is turning the odds in your favour, taking the right risks at the right moments. Stones was always a cantering centre-back, willing and able to dribble through midfield gaps and find cute passes into wingers and attackers further forward. At times, this came at a tangible cost. His attacking capabilities stymied City’s and England’s defensive stability. There were moments when £50m John Stones looked like a neophyte defender, never willing — to borrow a crude cliché — to ‘kick it into row Z’ when required. “No, don’t do that, John!” “Avert the danger!” “Get rid of it!” He’ll have heard those a few times.
“People knew he could play football well. What they didn’t know was whether he could play football well consistently”
Certainly one, probably two and possibly all three of Holland’s goals in England’s ill-fated Nations League semi-final came due to defensive errors from Stones. That was summer 2019; things were only going to get worse. Personal troubles, as well as Pep Guardiola’s trust in him reaching an all-time low, consigned him to considerable time on the bench, and even more time out of the picture entirely. City’s centre-back injury crisis of last year saw both Aymeric Laporte and Nicolás Otamendi miss long periods. Stones was left out in the cold, as 5-foot-7 midfielder Fernandinho and 18-year-old Spaniard Eric García were preferred. Soon landmark reinforcements Nathan Aké and Rúben Dias were brought in.
Stones has admitted he responded by putting in as much effort in training during this period as he ever has done. After watching seven of City’s first eight league games of the 2020/21 season from the side-line, he was handed a start in late November against Burnley. City won 5-0. He’s started every league match since, except one. In that very match, Guardiola shuffled the pack for a home fixture against second-bottom West Brom. The result: a disappointing 1-1 draw.Embed from Getty Images
The return of Stones has meant hardly any game time for Laporte — out of favour and out of sorts. Meanwhile, Stones and Dias have formed truly formidable defensive rapport. Since that Burnley match when fortune started to turn in favour of England’s most talented centre-back, City have conceded a remarkable one goal in the ten matches Stones has featured in.
In addition, he played most of City’s group-stage games in the Champions League earlier in the season. At this time, Stones was not in Guardiola’s first thoughts and was being used as a rotation player. Nevertheless, matches: four; goals against: none. The fact he’s scored three of City’s last ten goals only makes the argument that he’s well and truly ‘back’ more compelling.Embed from Getty Images
Opposition fans’ interest in Stones comes from an obvious place — the desire for England’s national team to do well and the acknowledgement that, on his day, Stones can be instrumental to achieving that. Where the John Terry of yesterday was magnificently uncompromising and world-class at keeping the ball out of the net, the John Stones of today is a polymath whose approach to defending is wonderfully multidisciplinary.
At different moments in his career, Stones has been a commanding defender or a cultured midfielder in disguise. Crucially, he has now been both, simultenously, for an extended period of time. Defensive records as exemplary as City’s don’t go unnoticed for very long. Gareth Southgate will be watching the revival of John Stones with interest. The England jigsaw might well have just found its missing piece, and from a very familiar source.