It’s been a while since John Stones last played a club game. Indeed, last season’s Champions League final was the last time the central defender made the pitch in a Manchester City shirt with the 27-year-old since losing his place in Pep Guardiola’s favoured XI to Aymeric Laporte. He has been ostracised at the Etihad Stadium.
This is somewhat peculiar given the success Stones enjoyed last season. Having been written off as a City player, he made himself one of the first names on the team sheet with a series of impressive displays. Last season, it was Laporte who struggled to make the pitch as Guardiola favoured Stones as his first-choice partner for Ruben Dias. The situation has been flipped.
John Stones now faces the biggest challenge of his Manchester City career to date. Last summer, Guardiola made a conscious effort to overhaul his defence with Dias and Nathan Ake arriving for a combined £105m. Through this effort came an opportunity for Stones as Guardiola tried out a number of different of options at the back.
Now, though, Guardiola is well aware of what he has within his own ranks. Is he going to experiment with so many different defensive formulas this season when Dias and Laporte have looked so solid over the early part of the season? No team has conceded fewer goals in the Premier League than City (three).
Injury was a factor in why John Stones was kept on the sidelines for the first few weeks of the season with his late return from Euro 2020 also setting him back in his pre-season preparations. However, this explanation for Stones’ first team exile no longer holds much water – see how new signing Jack Grealish has been quickly integrated at the Etihad Stadium despite also featuring heavily for England at Euro 2020.
“When John comes back, he will wait for his moment and he will show his quality, like he did last season,” Guardiola recently explained when asked for an update on Stones’ standing within the Manchester City squad. “We want him to be fit, because we need him.” A month has now passed since Guardiola made these remarks, though, and Stones still hasn’t reappeared.”
Gareth Southgate surely has a close eye on Stones’ increasingly peculiar situation at City. The 27-year-old was a key figure for England as they made a run all the way to the final of Euro 2020 with his emergence as a first team player for the Premier League champions filling a problem area for the Three Lions.
Of course, it wasn’t so long ago that John Stones was seen as part of the problem for England. The centre back developed a habit of making high-profile mistakes for the national team leading some to question whether he would ever fulfil his obvious potential. Last season was a turning point in Stones’ career, but that progress is now in doubt.
If John Stones isn’t playing for Manchester City, can he continue to play for England? Southgate has called up the centre back for the World Cup qualifiers against Andorra and Hungary, but there are questions over his fitness levels and match sharpness. Stones might get away with it against lower calibre opposition, but what about at a major tournament?
England have other options – Joe Gomez, Tyrone Mings, Conor Coady, Ben White, Fikayo Tomori – but none are as accomplished as John Stones. The 27-year-old has more than once recovered from significant set-backs in his career, but breaking up the axis of Dias and Laporte ahead of him in the City first team might prove beyond him. England are among those counting on Stones proving his doubters wrong again.
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