Throughout the 2016-17 Premier League season, the back end of Manchester City’s lineup has been one of the biggest concerns for the club. While some have been quick to point out the flaws in the transition to Pep Guardiola’s system, one blue in particular has stood out among the defensive crowd. John Stones has been one of the bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming season for City.
But how did Stones become the valuable player that he is today? It all started when Stones played for his local youth academy at 8 years of age. According to his former coach Mark Burton, Stones was encouraged to step up into midfield, be “comfortable with the ball at his feet, and make things happen as much as shutout the opposition.” He has always been the type of defender who plays his best when he his given the opportunity to be involved in play with the ball as opposed to not being involved with the ball.
Prior to signing with Man City, Stones was part of an Everton club, which was able to receive a club record for the transfer of Stones who joined Man City in the summer of 2016. The cost for Stones to City was £47.5 million. Stones was able to show enough promise as part of Everton to gain the attention of the man he called “the best manager in the world.” Signed by Pep Guardiola, as a young, intelligent defender, he would quickly fit into his role as the steady center back that City had hoped he would be. While the 2016-17 season for City has been rather disappointing, Stones has showed to be a great pick-up for the club. Stones has continued to develop while playing for Everton and Manchester City in the Premier League and has grown to be a key piece on England’s defense in international competition.
What is it about Stones that makes him such a valuable part of City’s roster, especially considering the struggles that the club has had this year? The general consensus surrounding Stones tends to point out a maturity beyond what would be expected from a 22 year old. Even as far back as his Everton days, Stones was praised for being a mentor to younger players. In some cases he was able to provide a calming presence to those making their way up to the Premier League for the first time. Now his maturity shows itself in the form of raw intangibles, which are evident in the style of play which Pep deploys his players in. That is a high possession system that focuses on defenders being strong while handling the ball in the face of high pressure opponents. That type of system is one that puts quite a bit of pressure on the City defenders.
Speaking of Pep’s high possession system, one should keep in mind that a key reason for City’s pursuit of Stones in the summer of 2016 was his ability to play with the ball. Pep’s system tends to prefer center backs who are able to make a successful first pass to start his team the other way. That is exactly what City has gotten with Stones. Since joining the club his successful pass percentage has been 92.3%. Meanwhile, throughout this Premier League season, no other Manchester City defender has been able to post a successful pass percentage at or above 90%. This would indicate that Stones has been a point of success as far as maintaining possession on the back end and that the other defenders may not be up to the task of playing in Pep’s system. There could be a myriad of reasons for the difference in success, however, it is difficult to argue with the results out of City’s defenders.
Additionally, Stones’ ability to be able to play under pressure is what has made him a valuable part of City’s roster. Many of the defensive struggles for the club have come from a defender’s inability to handle high pressuring oppositions. According to Pearson, individual errors are what have been the biggest downfall of City’s back end. For example, Stones’ partner, Nicolas Otamendi, tends to employ an aggressive style of play. He goes on to suggest that the defense would be more stable if Stones was paired with a more sturdy, conservative defensive partner.
Stones has also received his fair share of criticism this season. This should come as no surprise as he was brought in to be a centerpiece of a defense that would go on to struggle through his first year with the club. According to O’Malley, a large concern is that he has also struggled with his decision making this season. However, O’Malley also acknowledged that Stones’ age and lack of experience may also play into his decision making abilities and that “with every mistake he will learn a lesson.” Add on the price tag that Stones brought with him and it is not difficult to see why criticism has come his way. How much of that criticism aimed at Stones is actually earned is difficult to say. Especially after the disappointment of this season, no one on City’s roster should be safe from the criticism.
The response Stones has given to the criticism has been a reason to be optimistic for the young defender’s future. He believes that his struggles have been exaggerated due to the performance of the entire squad this season. According to Coerts, Stones is remaining focused on bettering himself as a player and taking responsibility for his shortcomings. Even more encouraging is that Stones is fully committed to not making the same mistakes more than once.
The jury is still out on the state of the club that Pep has assembled. After all, it does take time for a club to be able to adjust to new systems. But Stones has been a particularly strong part of the defense for City. So much so that, according to The Independant, Pep Guardiola has already commented on plans of acquiring a new defensive partner for Stones. Pep went on to say that “the defender has to be rougher and tough.” The end goal being to find a long-term defensive partner for Stones who is more consistent under pressure.
It should not go forgotten that Stones is just coming into his own. The back is playing in the Premier League at just 22 years of age. At age 21 he was the player that clubs would target with bid offers of up to 25 million pounds. Ultimately, the fee for him as a player will create some hefty expectations, however, one season of growth and adjustment should not be cause for panic.
In terms of his career path, Stones may have had some struggles this year, but that should not be cause for too much concern for Manchester City. He is still succeeding in the areas of the game that made him so valuable to City that the club was willing to spend big to bring him to the club. As a young player, it should come as no surprise that there will be struggles when moving to a club going through an adjustment to a new manager, such as the case with City. Players are going to react to a situation like this in different ways and Stones has reacted the way a veteran leader might be expected to react. The main difference is that he is only 22 and still growing as a player.
Featured image source: https://www.thesun.co.uk/sport/football/1613034/manchester-city-news-john-stones-hailed-as-a-f-player-by-willy-caballero-as-defender-impresses-on-debut/