Scapegoat or struggling?
The focus has never been stronger on Manchester City and England centre-back John Stones. The sharks are already starting to circle; and the age old question ‘Is he good enough for City?‘ has begun to be discussed. So, I ask, what’s the deal with John Stones?
“John Stones has more personality than all of us here together in this room, 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 quote was, of course, Pep Guardiola. The Catalan’s magical way of playing has delighted us for nearly four years now, but it starts from the back, and Guardiola chose John Stones for that job.
Stones was Pep Guardiola’s final signing of the 2016 window and became the second most expensive defender in football history. I was in Spain at the time, watching us completely pick apart a weak Steaua București side, but I couldn’t help but wonder how he would look in our new look defence.
Would he play with the skipper? Would Nicolas Otamendi finally step into a pivotal role? In fact, it was Aleksandar Kolarov who started alongside Stones in our opening Premier League game. Peak Pep I know, but it’s not the point I’m trying to make here. John Stones was supposed to be the first name on the team sheet for years to come, especially a 22-year-old at £47.5 million. But now we’re talking about whether he’s even good enough to even be a Manchester City player – so what’s gone wrong?
First of all, John Stones has missed 115 days since joining City through various injuries. Compare that to Benjamin Mendy (493 days) and Kevin De Bruyne (250 days), and it may seem like nothing. But it’s the timing of these injuries that have hampered any attempts to secure a regular spot in the team. The most notable in the 2017/18 season, where from August until November, Stones and Otamendi had formed what seemed like an unbreakable partnership. But in late November, Stones suffered a hamstring injury chasing a loose pass against Jamie Vardy, ruling him out for 12 games.
Then, when he came back, he wasn’t the same. We went to Anfield, where granted no-one ever plays well, and was easily shrugged off the ball by Roberto Firmino to give Liverpool the lead. A further muscle problem a few games later cut his season short and ended a campaign which started with so much promise – a question of what might have been.
It’s not hard to see that Stones plays on confidence. When he’s not confident in himself, he’s not the same John Stones many know he can be. I always remember a brilliant clip from his final season at Everton where instead of simply clearing the ball, he dribbled the ball out from a packed box and won his side a free-kick. He then proceeded to turn round and tell the Goodison faithful to ‘calm down’.
A brave move, but one of a confident player who knew what he was doing. [Skip to 2:26 – it’s glorious]
Recently in particular, Stones has been playing like a lad who is completely shot of confidence. Passes he is quite competent at playing, he’s delaying for too long or simply not playing them and putting himself under more pressure. Since Aymeric Laporte suffered his injury, we’ve missed a player who can break the lines from defence, or even produce a swift and accurate cross-field pass. John Stones is completely capable of doing that, but it’s that word again – confidence. That’s stopping him from doing it.
I don’t think for one minute that last weekend’s dropped points at home to Crystal Palace was the fault of John Stones. Their last minute equaliser is tough for him in a one-on-one situation, with someone as skilful as Zaha. He did the right thing – showed him down the line, didn’t let him cut in, and the pace of Zaha was the decisive factor. Moments like that are not the issue, it’s (I’m sorry, Fabian) the basics of his role that he’s getting wrong.
I want to see the John Stones I know he can be. The one who’s commanding with both ball at his feet and in the air. But until he emerges from this patch of keeping his head down, he’ll never fulfil why, in my eyes, we payed £47.5 million for him.
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