“More balls than everyone here. I like that. I love him. Under pressure, the people criticise him, so I am delighted to have John. With all his huge amount of mistakes. I love him. I love guys with this personality.
“Because it’s not easy to play central defender with this manager. It’s not easy. You have to defend 40 metres behind and make the build-up.”
But the former Everton and Barnsley defender has come in for some criticism following his £47.5million move to the Etihad Stadium last summer.
The perception is the defender is too much of a liability. That he is too relaxed in possession and prone to catastrophic lapses in concentration.
What those critics forget, though, is that Stones – regardless of his price tag which, by the way, is the going rate for a talented, young, ball-playing, English player – is only 22.
He has just 89 starts to his name in the Premier League. That is probably the most remarkable fact of all. Stones has been traded for more than £50million in his fledgling career but he is yet to reach 100 appearances as a Premier League player.
Centre-back has been City’s soft underbelly throughout their time as one of England’s biggest clubs. Stefan Savić, Jérôme Boateng, Eliaquim Mangala and Matija Nastasić have all been the answer. And then not. None, by the way, are doing badly for themselves away from the Etihad Stadium.
And so the spotlight falls on Stones, because as a nation we have a vested interest in a player who could be England’s number five for a decade or more. It’s fine for Savic or Boateng to scuttle off branded a failure. But Stones? He has to succeed.
The scrutiny is already on City’s backline given skipper Vincent Kompany can no longer be relied upon to be fit for any period of time. But because Stones does not do what a good English centre-half should do. He is not of the shoot first ask questions later school of defending. Moreover, he has got ideas above his station; he does not adhere to the playground adage: ‘If in doubt, get it out.’
There is a tendency in football to focus on what a player can’t do, instead of appreciating what they are good at. Like the fact he has, according to Opta, a 92 per cent pass completion rate; better than any player who has played 20 or more Premier League games this season. Even the feted N’Golo Kante, averaging a metre less per pass (17m) has a lower completion rate (88 per cent) than Stones.
But we know about Stones’ passing ability. One of the other, less talked about, facets of his game is the way he drives City forward from the back. His comfort in possession means he is more than happy to break out of the back four and carry the ball forward.
Below we see Stones do just that in Sunday’s game against Jürgen Klopp’s side. He could play a safe pass either side but instead drives into the green triangle.
Once there he decides to play the ball, again ignoring simpler options by sliding the ball forward into Raheem Sterling on the halfway line. He breaks the defensive lines with the pass.
In the next still (below), Stones passes the ball out to David Silva on his right (blue arrow). But, far from thinking his work is done, the defender drives forward to the edge of the Liverpool penalty area.
City’s attack progresses down the right-hand side and Stones is lurking on the edge in space with Emre Can apparently unaware of his threat.
Stones is, of course, not the finished article. At 22 he is some way from his peak and will not reach that stage for a few years yet. He is caught out positionally from time to time or when players run at him.
In the example below, in the first leg of City’s last-16 Champions League tie against Monaco, Stones starts on an equal footing with Radamel Falcao. He is matching the Colombian stride for stride and taking him into the corner.
Inexplicably, though, Stones allows Falcao to check onto his right foot, get inside him and advance into the penalty area before chipping keeper Willy Caballero to score with one of the Champions League’s most sumptuous finishes this season.
In the next still, taken from Sunday’s draw against Liverpool at the Etihad, Stones takes up a poor position to defend Philippe Coutinho’s cross in from the right. Sadio Mané sneaks in behind and only a last-ditch block from Stones sees the ball go over the crossbar.
It looks like a good piece of defending in the heat of the moment. But Stones’ failure to even face the direction of Mané is what puts him in a position where he has to atone for his error. On this occasion he did.
The Guardiola effect
We’ve established that Pep is a fan of the former Everton defender. But Stones should be every bit as excited about working under the former Barcelona coach. If there is one Premier League manager who will take the necessary time with him and has the skills to help him reach his full potential, it’s the Spaniard.
Guardiola’s pedigree for improving players is well known. One of the big beneficiaries from his time in Spain was Javier Mascherano. The Argentine joined the Blaugrana as a holding midfielder following a successful spell in England. However, he was quickly converted to a centre-back by Guardiola and was a mainstay of the former midfielder’s side during his trophy-laden stint at the Nou Camp.
If Stones can tap into the known-perfectionist’s coaching resources then there is no little doubt he can go on to achieve what is expected of him and iron out the creases in his game. And that is exactly what City need.
John Stones has completed the same number of league take-ons this season (17) as Cristiano Ronaldo.
Bringing the ball out from the back. pic.twitter.com/kMQa5UbKE7
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 20, 2017
City’s centre-back woes
With questions marks against Manchester City skipper Kompany in the long-term there is a vacancy at the Etihad Stadium for what in NFL parlance would be termed a ‘franchise centre-back’ – someone around whom the rest of the defence can be built.
Clearly Stones was purchased with that intention and Guardiola, more than any other recent manager of the club, has the patience and coaching ability to get the best out of his players.
As alluded to there have been mistakes in the past. Boateng was hastily ditched and has become one of the finest defenders in the world. If he was still at City there would be no need for a new right-back this summer. Savić is part of an Atletico defence which has thrived under Diego Simone and currently part of a hugely successful period for the club.
It is time for City to stop twisting and finally stick. They have a player in their ranks who should win 100 caps for England and lead his club to levels of success not previously seen in the blue half of Manchester.
But patience is required and that is one thing in short supply at City.