While much of the season has been a grind for Manchester City, one of the biggest positives has been the renaissance of John Stones.
Fitness and nigglingmuscle strains have been a contributing factor to the disruptionto Stones’ career, but the biggest reason forhis lack of game time over the past year has been a dip in form.
The defender was among the substitutes for nine of City’s final 11 games at the end of last seasonand remained on the bench when City suffered painful defeats to Arsenal in the FA Cup, Lyon in the Champions League and Southampton in the Premier League.
His comeback began slowly, with just one start before November, but has gatheredmomentum since.During the 615 minutes that Stones has been on the pitch this season, City have conceded only one goal.And that was way back in September during City’s first game of the season at Wolves.
From an unsuredefence that undermined last season’s league and Europeanchallenges, the backline has now become City’sprime strength.
With just one goal conceded in the European group stage, as well as a streak of six consecutive clean sheets, Pep Guardiola now has an embarrassment of riches at the back.
As an urgent priority in the summer, Guardiola spent £102 million ($132m)to bring in Benfica’s Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake from Bournemouth.
With Aymeric Laporte being City’s most consistent defender and academy product Eric Garcia still wanted by the club, despite his desire to return toboyhood club Barcelona, Stones’ future at the Etihad Stadium looked in serious doubt.
But at Old Trafford, it was Laporte that cut a forlorn figure as he watched on from the stands after failing to regainhis place.
“It depends on the performance. John is performing well and that’s why he’s playing,” Guardiola said ahead of Tuesday night’s clash with West Brom. “But there are a lot of games and everything can happen.
“Everyone has to be ready, I have told them that many times. Be ready, don’t complain much. Around the corner maybe you have the chance or maybe not so we have to be ready.”
Stones had to wait patiently for his opportunity but made the most of it when it came along.
The 26-year-old is a popular figure at the club and everyone, from Guardiolathrough the first team and down to the kit men, are desperate for him to provehis undoubted quality on a regular basis.
He has admitted previously that he foundit difficult being out of the team, particularly when he lost his place as a regular in Gareth Southgate’s England squad as a consequence.
While the arrivals of Dias and Ake provided a serious threat, it has also given Stones the opportunity to play alongside anaccomplished centre-back with his performances next to a struggling Nicolas Otamendi last season not helping his confidence.
Guardiola has also suggested that “personal issues” impacted on his formbut Stones now looks happy and at home back in his first team.
Stones built his reputation as a ball-playing, stylish centre-back but so far this season he has struck the right balance between flair and no-nonsense defending.
Against United, he was composed and rarely troubled by a frighteningly fast front two of Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood, and Guardiola believes defensive strength is giving his side a platform to build on.
“We have opportunities to get better but there are many, many things that are good,” he said. “The chances we concede so far, even the games we lost, except for Leeds who as usual created a lot, the other games we concede not much.
“But now these chances we concede, we solve it well and that’s why we can start building from here. To be solid and not concede much and from there we are going to grow.”
It’s been a slow return to form with Stones starting just 16 of City’s last 50 Premier League games but the former Barnsley and Everton man is still relatively young for a centre-back and can still have a big future at the club.
Guardiola once famously told a news conference that“John Stones has more personality than all of us here together in this room. More balls than everyone here.”
Source : goal.com