“[John] Stones has the potential to become world class.”
Those were the words of Rio Ferdinand back in 2018 as England prepared for the World Cup. The Three Lions were approaching the tournament with much optimism, and part of that was down to how well many of their star men were playing.
Stones was no exception to that list. He was just coming off a massive 100-point Premier League title win in which he played a starring role, playing most of the season alongside Nicolas Otamendi at the heart of the defence.
It felt like the beginning of a very special career as Stones overcame his early jitters to look impeccably solid at the back and excellent bringing the ball out in Pep Guardiola’s passing system as well. He should have dominated the division since then.
That’s not how it went down, though.
- Age: 26
- Club: Manchester City
- Position: Centre-back
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Stones came back from the World Cup looking a different player. He actually played more games for City but didn’t feel as central to the side as the previous year with the rise of Aymeric Laporte. Then for the run-in, Vincent Kompany reasserted himself as the side’s leading defender and Stones had a watching brief when the Belgian all but sealed the title with that famous thunderbolt against Leicester.
Then last season Stones barely cracked 1,100 minutes and looked rickety and unsure of himself in a way he hadn’t since 2016. It was as though he had regressed and uncertainty surrounded his future in Manchester. Injuries took their toll and, even when fit, Pep Guardiola appeared to prefer using midfielder Fernandinho out of position than play Stones. He had lost his place in the England side and his period as a good centre-back bordering on world-class was all but a memory, lost in a pre-Virgil van Dijk haze.
Then as 2020/21 began, Stones was not part of the featured side. He played in the opening-day win and featured in the Champions League as City navigated their easy group with, well, ease.
For the next seven straight league games he was out of the side, but City won just two of those matches, drawing three and losing two. It was a miserable start to the season and a change had to be made. Guardiola brought Stones back into the fold alongside new signing Ruben Dias and the results have been remarkable.
Partnered by another rugged defender who made their name in Portugal (as he was in 2017/18 next to Nicolas Otamendi) Stones looks back to his imperious self. Since the Englishman returned to the side, City have won five of their seven league games and conceded just two goals.
One of those goals conceded came in Stones’ only absence (the 1-1 draw with West Brom) and the other was a stoppage-time consolation for Chelsea in a match City were already 0-3 up in. City have become so defensively solid that they have clawed their way back up the league table and, if they win their two games in-hand they will go ahead of league leaders and defending champions Liverpool.
Obviously Ruben Dias has made a big difference at the back for City. It would be churlish to not credit him in both City and Stones’ defensive resurrection, but the Portuguese has played all but 20 Premier League minutes since his debut on matchday 4 and City still looked dodgy when he wasn’t partnered by Stones.
The Englishman has made the difference, and Guardiola knows it. “All credit for [Stones]. In a long career, you always have ups and downs. Unfortunately, he struggled longer than we expected and he expected — but his comeback is absolutely down to him,” said the Catalan after the weekend’s win against Chelsea.
That win in London was followed by Stones’ magnificent performance against Manchester United in the EFL Cup semi-final. A 0-2 win for City and their second clean-sheet against their rivals this season (after a 0-0 last month). As if to punctuate the importance of Stones, the defender scored the opening goal for City. And just to show how confident he is now, he chased down Paul Pogba then spun him to the floor like he was Xavi.
It was a majestic moment that perfectly summed up the change in fortunes for Stones. The serenity he radiates when in his rhythm allows Manchester City to be dominant both with and without the ball. Here is a defender who had found the best version of himself again, and through hard work, determination and a lot of innate talent is back on the road to being a world-class defender.