John Stones was expected to be the next big thing to happen to England. Back in 2015, the young Englishman was the talk of the town as far as the issue of the best central defenders in the Premier League was concerned. With Chelsea searching for John Terry’s heir, the former Everton man was the chosen one.
The Blues made attempts to get the player but Everton would not let go of their prized asset so easily. European giants like Real Madrid and Barcelona were also rumoured to be interested in the Barnsley-born defender. But it was Manchester City that got the breakthrough, splashing £47.5 million on the player.
That was in 2016, as Pep Guardiola began assembling a new squad to take the club forward. The Catalan-born manager has been roundly criticised in several quarters for spending too much on acquiring defenders. Some have even gone as far as explaining his success in the last two years away as using money to buy trophies.
When Alex Ferguson and Manchester United spent the biggest amounts in the league buying the best players and winning trophies back-to-back, they were not using money to buy trophies. Neither did these critics see Real Madrid and Barcelona doing the same, as with Juventus and Bayern Munich in Italy and Germany, respectively. But that is a topic for another day.
Although Stones has performed well in the last few seasons, he has been nowhere near the level he is capable of performing this season. The Barnsley youth academy graduate was used in 24 league games by the manager last term as City claimed the domestic treble. His goal line clearance against Liverpool was one of the key moments that helped deliver the title to City. Having initially established a good partnership with Aymeric Laporte, many expected the duo to lock down the position moving forward.
So far, Laporte has proven himself as key to City. The Frenchman has been severely missed this term as he recovers from a long injury layoff. His absence, as with that of Vincent Kompany created the perfect opportunity for Stones to become the main man at the back. Yet, the 25-year-old has been found wanting so many times.
A couple reasons can be adduced for this:
1. Lack of leadership ability
The best players in the position demonstrate an appetite for leadership. They like to control things and show others the way. Former Juventus and Real Madrid center-back, Fabio Canavaro did not win the Ballon d’Or as just another player on the pitch waiting for instructions on what to do. The Italian was always in command marshaling the team from the back. Little wonder then that he wore the captain armband and led Italy to win the World Cup.
Sergio Ramos and Virgil van Dijk are modern prototypes of what a center-back should be like. Stones needs to rise up to the challenge and up his game. Only then can he put his name in the conversation on the best center-backs in the world.
2. A propensity for making mistakes
Sure, every player makes mistakes. They're human afterall. But the best professionals minimise them and offer much more to the team than the basic requirements of their position. Stones needs to work on his game and prune down the mistakes. He also needs to offer more to the team than just defending.
After shining at the 2018 World Cup, where he was used alongside Harry Maguire, the City man has been sidelined of late by Gareth Southgate in preference for Aston Villa’s Tyrone Mings. His error that led to a goal against England in the Nations League and lack of adequate playing time for City have played a part in the decision.
Having a manager like Pep Guardiola means no player has any excuse not to improve. Therefore, Stones must buckle up, learn and improve on his game in order to fulfil the potential that brought so much hype a few years back. Both he and City will be the better for it.