The football world took a sharp inhalation of breath as John Stones raced back towards his goal line on 3 January 2019. In a desperate attempt to scramble the ball clear, Stones smashed his clearance against the sprawling Ederson and sent the ball looping back towards Manchester City’s vacant, gaping goal.
Locked in a foot race with a scampering Mo Salah, which the rampant Egyptian looked destined to win, Stones activated every muscle fibre in his right leg to poke the ball to safety with an outstretched toe. Replays showed that the ball was just 11 millimetres away from crossing the line and giving Liverpool a 1-0 lead during a period in which the visitors were firmly in the ascendancy.
City went on to win the game 2-1 as they closed the gap to just four points on their league-leading opponents. The result was the second victory of a whopping 18 from their final 19 fixtures of the season. Had Stones failed to make that clearance, there’s every chance City would have dropped points against their closest title rival and therefore failed to defend the Premier League title for the first time in their history.
But nobody remembers that now. Nobody remembers the Stones who started 20 league matches in the 2018/19 season and cultivated a thriving left-foot/right-foot partnership with Aymeric Laporte, orchestrating attacks from deep, commanding the backline and reading the game with an almost Maldini-esque ease.
The margins on which City’s 2018/19 title victory were so fine that Stones’ goal line clearance has come to represent the difference between the two North West outfits that season. Only players in the elite bracket are usually capable of such season-defining moments, of pulling off a last-ditch clearance when the odds are stacked against them.
There has been a notable absence of comparably outstanding moments for Stones since his miraculous moment of divine intervention, with his reputation plummeting from potentially world-class to nothing more than a handy squad player. Given he is just 26 and the tendency for defenders to refine and improve with age, however, it is not too late for him to reach the dizzy heights that many have predicted him to.
Back when the 6ft 2in man was at his peak with City in 2018, Rio Ferdinand spoke effusively about his potential, per Goal.
“Stones has the potential to become world class,” Ferdinand said, before going on to add: “He has all of the fundamental basic things on the ball to be a great. It is about balancing that out with defensive responsibility, defensive nous, and creating or having that instinct as a defender. If he can get all that jigsaw put together, you have the foundations of a top player.”
That claim may appear a touch out of place more than two years on, but the Man United legend’s assessment underlines the upwards trajectory his career was heading in at the time.
Since then, though, the Barnsley-born central defender has appeared to struggle for popularity from a wider footballing audience despite his obvious talent, though that trend is not exclusively a recent phenomenon.
Back in March 2017, amid rising criticism in the media for Stones’ displays on his maiden City campaign following his £47.5m transfer from Everton, Pep Guardiola delivered a glowing verdict on his player’s mentality that, for obvious reasons, particularly sticks in the mind.
“John Stones has more personality than all of us here together in this room,” Guardiola began.
“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.”
That the former Bayern Munich manager felt compelled to defend him so passionately undoubtedly has plenty to do with Stones’ price-tag and his decision to join City of all clubs. For all of the praise City have received for the brand of football Guardiola has imprinted, equally they are resented for their aggressive spending and willingness to cherry-pick top players from Premier League rivals as opposed to developing their own talent.
While that was most strongly pronounced in light of Raheem Sterling’s move to the Etihad Stadium, Stones has not escaped the extra scrutiny players seem to receive when they opt to move in search of a higher salary at an outfit with loftier ambitions. In what other industry would people be slandered for following this completely rational career path?
Guardiola’s admission of Stones’ “huge amount of mistakes” was a typically sarcastic swipe at the media vultures who would sooner crucify the centre-back for giving the ball away while adhering by his manager’s values than even begin to acknowledge the incredibly difficult balancing-act of playing as both a central defender and an auxiliary playmaker.
In an era when defenders have never had it harder, it is rare for pundits to acknowledge the extent of the challenge Stones and other top-level defenders face.
However, it is of course impossible to deny that Stones has made his fair share of mistakes in his career. But who hasn’t? The problem is that the deeper you go into the the team, the higher the possibility that a mistake results in a goal, and therefore the more likely it is that those mistakes will come to define reputations, influence media perceptions and shape a players’ confidence.
Arguably Stones’ most high-profile calamity arrived while on England duty. A one-off disastrous game in the Premier League can quite comfortably evade the notice of a broader audience, but with a whole nation watching the UEFA Nations League semi-final against The Netherlands there was simply no place to hide for Stones.
He was culpable for letting Matthijs de Ligt escape his grasp for the equaliser, displaying an absence of defensive nous which only added to the feeling that he lacks the fundamentals to warrant his place at the top level.
And then there was the failed spin on the edge of his own penalty area which gifted Memphis Depay possession and eventually resulted in the Three Lions going 2-1 down.
It felt like a watershed fixture in Stones’ career and it’s hard to argue that he has been the same player since. A steadfast commitment to living by Guardiola’s principles cost him. Where most other defenders may have played it safe, he tried to play his way out of danger. His confidence was left in tatters, and yet more injuries in the 2019/20 season hampered his progress, leaving him on the brink of a summer exit from Man City in the most recent window.
But those mistakes are a fundamental part of the learning curve and are not abnormal even for world class players, as that man Ferdinand again acknowledged nearly two years after tipping the now 26-year-old to become world class, per Robbie Savage’s Premier League Breakfast Show (via M.E.N).
“The top players all make mistakes in the early part of their career. The top ones who become world class are the ones that eradicate the mistakes and learn from them.”
Stones’ ability to eradicate those mistakes, whether at Man City or elsewhere, will ultimately mould his future and define his legacy.
Despite the summer arrivals of Nathan Ake and Ruben Dias, Stones hasn’t appeared to show any desire to leave the club or any contempt for his diminishing importance.
According to The Athletic, Stones spent the summer analysing his own game, searching for ways to improve, and an Instagram post commemorating his four-year stint at the Etihad Stadium alluded to his desire to prove himself in the realms of a fiercely demanding institution.
Guardiola has been reluctant to trust Stones on a regular basis this season but a composed, solid opening day display against Wolves following his surprising inclusion hinted that perhaps there is still life in his City career yet.
Earlier this week, he impressed once again on his second start of the season against Olympiacos. This was by far from the sternest opponent City will face this season but it was a positive confidence builder for Stones nonetheless.
Guardiola’s appreciation for his display came through in his post-match assessment: “He’s an incredible person. He’s struggled a lot the last two seasons with a lot of injuries. And today he played the perfect game.”
Pertinently, Guardiola’s empathy with his injury problems bring us back to a point that seems to be overlooked in the ongoing analysis of Stones’ decline. He has been plagued by issues and his stop-start career at City has clearly upset his rhythm. After all, we cannot all rise from the injury ashes with the same effervescence as Danny Ings.
For a player whose game is underpinned by his ability in possession of the ball, and therefore requires an understanding of how his teammates weave around the pitch, the lack of consistent playing time is particularly harmful.
Perhaps he does need to leave City to re-establish himself in the England set-up. There is arguably no better time for Stones’ resurgence given the dearth of reliable centre-back options available to Gareth Southgate.
Harry Maguire’s decline has been well documented, Joe Gomez’s inexperience regularly manifests and the fact Southgate has even restored Kyle Walker to his central defensive unit attests to the size of the problem at hand.
Ultimately, Stones is a maverick in his position and will always leave himself open to criticism from those who struggle to view him as a “proper defender”, while his torrid time with injuries has undoubtedly shaped his career.
But, regardless of what his most vehement critics say, he has the ability and, if Guardiola’s verdict is anything to go by, the mentality to revamp his career and fulfil Ferdinand’s prophecy.
Breaking into the side will not be straightforward and he’ll need to be patient, but the early signs so far this season suggest Guardiola is at least willing to hand him opportunities to prove himself.
He has taken them with both hands when they have arrived and proven that it’s too soon to write him off as a future world class talent as he moves into last chance saloon territory at City.
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