Stones masterclass proves he could yet fulfil Pep Guardiola’s vision | Manchester City
For 64 minutes of Manchester City’s 7-0 shellacking of Leipzig John Stones was the defender-midfielder pivot of Pep Guardiola’s prophecy. Taken off at this juncture on Tuesday night to a rapturous reception from the Etihad Stadium faithful, Stones had returned the type of masterclass his manager identified he could offer when he made him his No 1 transfer target before taking over City in summer 2016.
Marco Rose’s visitors were overrun all evening. Erling Haaland hogged the headlines with his five-goal blitz, Kevin De Bruyne was a constant creative menace and Stones performed as a quasi-second Rodri, smoothly linking defence and attack as if operating in the mode for as a long as the Spaniard.
From the first whistle Stones left his right-back berth to drift inside and pass and receive, create space, pull Leipzig about and be the extra man that caused a midfield overload. The 28-year-old was spied as far from his official post as inside left, tapping the ball to Ilkay Gündogan, Jack Grealish, De Bruyne and company before, when his on-field sat-nav blinked red, racing back into position to help thwart any rare Leipzig foray.
Stones was the vision of a footballer Guardiola imagined seven years before. While Guardiola was still Bayern Munich head coach he had shown YouTube videos to the club executive of the then Everton defender, and informed those present at his Bavarian home that Stones was key to his plans.
The clips revealed a 21-year-old whose fluidity had him purring out from the back in possession, seeing a clear map of the game and selecting the right option with a schemer’s eyes. Then came a £47.5m transfer and problems. Stones proved injury bedevilled and performed unevenly, Guardiola offered intermittent mutterings about the player’s private life, and the England international admitted three years ago that he might depart – after Guardiola had previously insisted that as long as “I am manager Stones will be at the club”.
This is Stones’s seventh season in east Manchester yet there have been only 136 Premier League appearances. Tuesday was a second match since a comeback from the latest injury – a hamstring problem sustained in January’s FA Cup win over Arsenal. This caused his removal on 49 minutes and Guardiola offered one of his gnomic post-game utterances, saying: “He was not ready and that’s why when this happens you get injured.”
In November 2020 the manager was citing “personal issues” regarding Stones after Stones had fought his way back into the XI to be Rúben Dias’s regular central defensive partner. That 2020-21 campaign was arguably his finest as City won the title and Guardiola selected Stones to start the Champions League final against Chelsea.
A 1-0 defeat followed but Stones was back in favour a year after Guardiola accepted Stones could soon be heading for a City exit. “We’ll speak at the end of the season about what is going to happen,” he said.
Stones remained, yet cut to the start of last season and his place was again lost due to the old combination of injury and Guardiola’s keen eye for a drop-off in form, so after Tuesday’s exhibition what may be next in the chequered story of his City career?
Guardiola would say it will be solely down to Stones and that as with any of his squad Stones has to keep on selecting himself by returning 9-out-of-10 displays, Grealish’s recent elevation to first choice is the latest illustration of this school of meritocracy.
But, who knows? Stones keeps on getting injured and so keeps on disturbing his rhythm, yet Tuesday was a marker and sent a message to the demanding Guardiola. It said that in his peak years Stones may be able to finally flourish as the total defender-midfielder the Catalan spotted when in Germany.
Stones, asked whether he would like to end his playing days at City, says: “Would I? I’m still only 28 but yeah, I absolutely love it here. I’d love to play as long as I can and I really do feel like it’s my home. I really do love everything about it –the people I see day in day out, the fans, my teammates and I’ve got my best memories in football.”
At Guardiola’s City you can never be fully “in”. Kyle Walker, an unused replacement versus Leipzig, Dias, Laporte, Grealish, De Bruyne, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and countless others will testify to this. But in Guardiola’s success-soaked era any trophy-hungry player must do all he can to avoid being deemed a footballer non grata and be put up for sale.
Stones, in a high-stakes Champions League encounter, showed that he continues to flower. And, that he is up for this challenge.