There was a time when Pep Guardiola was a fully paid-up member of the John Stones fan club. But not anymore.
“John Stones has more personality than all of us here together in this room,” Guardiola began in a post-match interview in 2017.
“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.
That was 2017 after the centre-back had been caught out in City’s 1-1 draw with Liverpool in the Premier League. Stones was 22 and looked set to be a mainstay of Guardiola’s side for years to come with his willingness to play out and receive the ball making him ideal for the Catalan’s possession-heavy style.
But something has gone wrong. Badly wrong.
This season the former Barnsley and Everton defender has made just two Premier League starts – that despite the knee ligament damage suffered by Aymeric Laporte earlier in the campaign and Vincent Kompany‘s summer exit.
Stones has been injured, too, missing nine of 13 games. But it was telling Guardiola preferred to start holding midfielders Rodri and Fernandinho in the heart of defence for the trip to Crystal Palace and Champions League visit from Atalanta, rather than rush Stones back.
When Rodri was taken off clutching his hamstring after half an hour, Guardiola was left with no choice but to turn to the England international whose last start came in the shock defeat at newly-promoted Norwich City on September 14 – a game which saw Nicolás Otamendi do his best impression of a Sunday League defender.
On Tuesday Stones was summoned from the bench to plug the hole at the heart of City’s defence when Rodri limped off. But only after Guardiola lambasted the 25-year-old for his lack of urgency in getting ready to come on.
Speaking to BT Sport afterwards, Stones said: “I had them [shin pads] on but I just needed to fix them up properly. Time is of the essence and that’s what he wanted.”
In the scheme of things, it was meaningless. A heated exchange in the heat of the moment, doubtless exacerbated by Guardiola’s frustration at losing another player to injury. At the same time, it felt symptomatic of something deeper.
Where once Stones was a regular, the Yorkshireman has started just six Premier League games since February 10. Again, injuries have played their part and Guardiola acknowledged as much when addressing the media on Friday.
“He has had many injuries that’s why he couldn’t play. When he came back last season Vinny [Kompany] and Laporte were in great form, and I wanted to give them regularity.
“But this season, it’s injury after injury so it takes time to get into rhythm.”
It’s hard to read too much into his data given he has played half as many Premier League games since February 10 as he did prior to that point last season, but, statistically, there’s no real discernible difference.
The number of tackles the 38-cap England international makes and wins are up – but at Manchester City, who famously ‘don’t train tackles’, that’s not a measure of anything – and the number of interceptions he completes has declined only marginally.
A better measure, then, might be Stones’ use of the ball. Since February he’s attempting (85.39) and completing (81) slightly fewer passes per 90 but his overall accuracy has gone up (94.8 per cent vs. 93.8 per cent) while more passes (25.53 vs. 22.61) are going forward.
Empirical evidence might suggest differently, though.
It will not have escaped Guardiola’s attention that Stones was complicit in the defeat at Carrow Road. It was he who let Teemu Pukki go for the Canaries’ second before the Finn squared the ball to Todd Cantwell to net.
While Pukki’s eventual winner wasn’t directly Stones’ fault, it was a disastrous goal to concede from a team’s point of view with Emi Buendia robbing Otamendi before finding Pukki to smash home. Stones could have done more to help the Argentine who was evidently in trouble.
In summary, it’s hard to escape the feeling Manchester City are less secure when Stones is involved. It was a pretty damning indictment of his form that Guardiola chose to run with the far less mobile Kompany in the title run-in, preferring his skipper’s defensive nous when it came to the crunch.
At 25, Stones should be entering his prime years, ready to establish himself as one half of City and England’s first-choice central defensive duo. In reality, he is no further forward than two years ago when Guardiola was praising his cojones.
But his future isn’t set in stone: it’s up to John to change it.