It’s often said that some centre-backs are great leaders and others are great partners.
Virgil van Dijk falls into the former category, anchoring the Liverpool defence brilliantly over the past few years and changing the fortunes of a club arguably more than any other single signing has done in the Premier League era.
And in the latter category, you would likely place someone like Raphael Varane, who is a superb defender in his own right, but has acted more as the perfect complement to Sergio Ramos.
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For a long time, John Stones was also considered among the latter, providing the poise and polish to Manchester City’s backline alongside a more forceful commander like Vincent Kompany. In fact, such were his struggles post-2018 World Cup, many began to question whether he was a great centre-back at all.
The former Everton man fell prey to the sort of high-profile mistakes that plagued his early career — such as being caught in possession by Memphis Depay during England’s Uefa Nations League semi-final defeat to the Netherlands in June 2019 — with some suggesting he was simply incapable of rooting those errors out of his game.
And then, of course, there were the various injury concerns, with Stones spending lengthy spells on the sidelines for City thanks to groin, muscular, ankle and foot problems.
But in November 2020, with Aymeric Laporte out of form, Stones was given a lifeline by Pep Guardiola as he was restored to the City starting XI and from there, he built a rock-solid partnership with Ruben Dias to inspire the Citizens to yet another Premier League title, playing a part in no fewer than 14 clean sheets — only Dias himself (15) had more among outfield players.
“He struggled to be happy here. Especially for injuries, for some personal problem and for many reasons — lack of minutes because I didn’t see him like he is right now,” Guardiola said of Stones in February.
“In the past, he was not like he is right now, with stability, happiness, commitment and focusing. That’s why I give a lot of credit to him because he overcame this situation himself.
“He could have fell down, he could have even gone even more down but it was completely the opposite. He said, ‘No, I am here, I know how good I am’.
“He didn’t need my confidence. He didn’t need the words or the minutes. [He said] ‘I know who I am, I know I am a top central defender and I am going to show you, the Premier League, England and the world that I am good’.”
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Stones has since managed to channel that form and focus to make himself an integral part of Gareth Southgate’s England set-up once again. After sitting out the whole of 2020 at international level, Stones returned to the Three Lions fold in March and has since picked up seven caps.
Sure, his international renaissance hasn’t been without road bumps. For example, Stones’ hesitance on the ball against Poland allowed Jakub Moder to equalise during a World Cup qualifier at Wembley. But Stones called upon all the resilience and fortitude that got him through his darkest days, going down the other end and assisting Harry Maguire for an 85th-minute winner.
With Maguire injured for the start of Euro 2020, people looked to Stones to anchor the English defence. Many were prowling for mistakes, ready to pounce on him at a moment’s notice. But thus far, the 26-year-old has been flawless in helping England to four clean sheets from four games.
Stones has made more clearances (10) and won more aerial duels (12) than any other England player at the tournament so far. He also ranks second among his teammates for interceptions (4) and third for tackles (5).
Against Germany, in particular, Stones perfectly combined aggression with composure, flying out of the defence to keep the opposition’s back to goal when required and dropping off to go one-on-one when that wasn’t an option.
This from John Stones vs Timo Werner on Tuesday 💪
— Chris Smith ⚽✍️ (@CJSmith91) July 1, 2021
“His experiences are incredible,” England coach Graeme Jones said of Stones last year. “He’s played Champions League football regularly now, he’s a Premier League title winner, he’s an FA Cup winner, he’s a League Cup winner and you get that level of experience you’ve got a completely different animal.”
Former Everton teammate Romelu Lukaku recently tweeted that he always knew Stones was a “baller”.
Knew it from day one! Stonesy is a baller https://t.co/HUHBWpXpYZ
— R.Lukaku Bolingoli9 (@RomeluLukaku9) June 23, 2021
Former Inter Milan centre-back Ivan Cordoba even named Stones as one of the best centre-backs in the world as recently as May.
“In England, I really like John Stones of Pep Guardiola’s Man City — a very strong defender,” he said. “He is a complete defender in everything he does. I think he is one of the best in the world!”
At 26, Stones is no longer the young prospect some remember him as. He’s now using all of that experience, gained through both success and hardship, to become one of the real leaders in this England team. With Maguire out, he guided the Three Lions’ defence to perfection — and nearly grabbed another famous tournament goal against Scotland. The way he confronted Jordan Pickford as the goalkeeper went long one too many times in England’s opener against Croatia only further illustrates how he’s now able to guide those around him, rather than being the one to need a babysitter himself.
With Maguire now back, Stones has only gotten better and from here on out, should be expected to improve even more. After spending a year in the wilderness, he has become the bedrock on which Southgate has built this brave challenge on the rest of Europe.