Will John Stones become a consistent performer under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City? The signs of improvement are there, writes Adam Bate.
John Stones could have been England’s World Cup hero. Sime Vrsaljko cleared his header off the line during extra-time of the semi-final against Croatia. It would have been a third goal of the tournament for the only outfield player to start all seven games for England in Russia. “Absolutely outstanding” was the verdict of Gareth Southgate when it was all over.
Sadly, by that point, it was what happened ten minutes after that header that will linger in the memory for Stones. One costly lapse of concentration in the 109th minute of the game in Moscow was enough to allow Mario Mandzukic to fire in the winning goal and crush England’s hopes. For the cruellest of critics, this was a case of same old Stones.
In the immediate aftermath of such disappointment, his response was hugely impressive. He insisted that he would watch back the videos of his performances at the World Cup in order to learn from his mistakes. He also said that while he has been offered a four-week break, he will not be taking more than three. He wants to build on the momentum of this summer.
“It is always good to self-analyse and be self-critical,” said the 24-year-old centre-back. “That is how I have got through so far and improved. You have got to be harsh on yourself because it is the only way you are going to get better, by studying those situations where you may have fallen short. Now it is about keeping improving.”
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The irony of it all is that, despite his one slip up in Russia, Stones has improved considerably over the past year. Thigh, knee and groin problems did their best to ruin the second half of his title-winning season with Manchester City but in the early part of that record-breaking campaign, he had been among the most impressive performers for Pep Guardiola.
Stones started 11 of City’s first 12 Premier League games of the season, winning all but one of them – the draw coming away to his old club Everton after being reduced to 10 men. He proved to be an increasingly mature presence in the heart of Guardiola’s defence with his use of the ball, so evident at the World Cup, setting him apart from the rest.
Stones’ stats bear this out. He has a passing accuracy of 95.8 per cent last season, up from an already impressive 91.7 per cent in the previous campaign and better than anyone else in the Premier League. Nobody really got close. There is not much scope for further improvement there but it is indicative of how assured he is with the ball at his feet.
Southgate himself recognised that quality in Stones when he was his England U21 coach back in 2015, describing him as the most composed English defender he had seen. But there was a concern too. “There is still a bit of work to be done in terms of that understanding that keeping the ball out of the net is the number one priority,” he added.
Importantly, Stones has also been able to cut out the defensive errors that had previously marred his game. In the two years prior to last season, he had made more errors leading to goals – six – than any other outfield player in the Premier League. It was seen as a natural consequence of his desire to overplay in dangerous areas of the pitch.
More recently, he has made a mockery of that theory. Stones did not make a single error leading to a shot let alone a goal last season. Compare that to Nicolas Otamendi who made three, all of them proving costly. The much admired Ederson made six. Each of Kyle Walker, Fabian Delph and Fernandinho were responsible for two such mistakes apiece.
Perhaps the perception of Stones is influenced by the fact that he has had to do his growing up in the spotlight. He is still only 24. One day younger, for example, than Manchester City’s £57m defender Aymeric Laporte. It will take time for Stones to shed the tag of being error prone and only sustained excellence at the highest level will do it.
With so much competition for places at Manchester City, there will be work to do just to earn the opportunity. But Stones knows he is on the right path – keep learning and keep improving. Despite the disappointment over how his World Cup ended, the evidence is there that he is doing just that.
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