John Stones: Man City fans - and Erling Haaland - love Pep Guardiola's do-it-all defender
Manchester City fans have no shortage of idols at the moment, be it the insatiable Erling Haaland, long-time favourite Kevin De Bruyne or the reinvented Jack Grealish. But on Saturday, they were particularly pleased to see John Stones give them the lead against Leicester City with a scorching half volley from outside the area, and with his weaker left foot too.
As the defender ran over to the corner flag to celebrate and embrace Haaland, the fans began bellowing out "Jonny, Jonny Stones, Jonny, Jonny Stones" to the tune of Boney M's 'Daddy Cool'.
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The 28-year-old might not be the most glamorous name in City's squad, yet he is one of their best-loved players.
He is the third longest-serving member of the playing staff, behind only De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan, lifting eight major trophies in his seven years at the club.
And he is hugely respected by Pep Guardiola, who has always leapt to his defence in times of trouble.
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A new lease of life
But an even bigger sign of how much Guardiola believes in Stones is the fact he has given him real responsibility to help reshape the City defence this season.
Stones has played across the backline before, filling in at right-back as well as playing his usual position in the middle of the back four, or in a back three.
But his ability to play as a holding midfielder alongside Rodri while tucking back into right-back when needed is what has given him a new lease of life in the team.
While Joao Cancelo was forced to move to Bayern Munich on loan and Kyle Walker openly told by Guardiola that he is not capable of playing in City's new structure, Stones is back in the fold and starting practically every game.
Since returning from a hamstring injury in early March, he has started six out of seven matches, only missing the FA Cup tie with Burnley. In the same period, Walker has started just twice.
Playing like Busquets
Sometimes Stones plays as a more traditional right-back, albeit playing more inside than on the flank, as in the 1-0 win against Crystal Palace.
Stones' midfield masterclass 🤯 pic.twitter.com/MuJr2OVxcE— Manchester City (@ManCity) April 2, 2023
In other games, such as against Liverpool and Southampton, he has looked like Sergio Busquets, playing metronomic short passes to team-mates from advanced areas while seldom giving the ball away.
At St Mary's, he played 32 passes with a 91 percent success rate, the same as Rodri, albeit the Spaniard made 66 passes.
In the 4-1 demolition of Liverpool, Stones made 67 passes with an 96% success rate. By contrast, Fabinho made 26 passes with 85% accuracy, and Jordan Henderson made 44 with 91% accuracy.
Stones' crisp passing was key to City dominating Liverpool, and he was involved in their long, slow build-up for the third goal, making four passes before Ilkay Gundogan eventually knocked the ball into the net.
Practice makes perfect
Stones has been asked to play in midfield before and it did not always come naturally to him, but it is now a different story, with the England international utterly at ease in the middle of the park.
“Our shape was completely different [in the past] and that’s why maybe he struggled a little bit more. Now he knows, he practised more, he knows more our routine is a little bit better and that’s why he can use it better,” Guardiola said earlier this month.
“At the same time, it’s a new position for him and he has to be able all the time to concentrate more than when you play as a central defender or other positions.
“When you see the game from behind it’s completely different to when you play in the middle and are surrounded. Some movement and patterns are a little bit more difficult that’s why I appreciate a lot what he has done.
“We saw some specific things with the ball, especially in the build-up. We were happy to have him but all that he has achieved here and with the national team belongs to him."
Showing balls through adversity
It is worth examining that last line, "all he has achieved here". Guardiola is not just talking about trophies Stones has won, even though there have been a lot of those.
Throughout his City career, Stones has battled adversity and crises of confidence.
He was one of Guardiola's first signings in 2016 after rejecting a move from Everton to Chelsea the previous year. He was always known for his ability on the ball at Goodison Park, but Guardiola challenged him to take even more risks and play in a far higher line.
That resulted in a number of high-profile mistakes in a very difficult first year for Guardiola and Stones. City finished third in the Premier League, Guardiola's lowest-ever finish in 15 years as a manager. And for the first and last time, he failed to win a trophy.
Stones bore the brunt of a lot of criticism for City's failures, but Guardiola staunchly defended him.
In an unforgettable press conference in March 2017, the Catalan said: "John Stones has more personality than all of us together in this room. More balls than anyone here, guys! I like that kind of player, I love him.
"Under pressure, the people criticise him, the people say he won’t play again. I am delighted to have John, with all his huge amount of mistakes. I love him! I love guys with this kind of personality because it’s not easy to play central defender with this manager. Not easy."
Outcast from the team amid personal issues
But Guardiola did not exactly back up his words with actions, and the following January, City paid a club-record £57 million to sign Aymeric Laporte from Athletic Club.
After Laporte's signing, Stones did not start a Premier League match for four months, and only re-established himself in the team the following season, helped by Vincent Kompany's injury troubles.
He made a pivotal contribution to City's 2018-19 title win when he miraculously cleared Sadio Mane's shot off the line in the crunch title showdown with Liverpool, which Guardiola's side won 2-1.
However, during the 2019-20 campaign, he found himself an outcast again, starting only 12 league games, barely featuring in the domestic cups and making a solitary appearance, as a substitute, in the Champions League.
With Kompany departed, he had lost his place to the teenage Eric Garcia. It later emerged that Stones had been having a difficult personal life following a split with his long-time partner and the mother of his daughter, which goes some way to explaining his prolonged absence from the team.
Many started to wonder if he should consider leaving City and reports emerged that he was set to return to Everton.
Back in the side and tied to a new contract
But instead, Garcia rejected a new contract with City in order to return to boyhood club Barcelona. City in the end turned down a bid from Barcelona and instead allowed Garcia to run down his contract and leave for free in July 2021.
But it meant that Garcia was no longer the club's future, and Stones made the most of his return to the team, forming a formidable partnership at the heart of defence with Ruben Dias as City swept to the league title.
That summer, he started all seven of England's games in their run to the European Championship final, and three months later, in August 2021, he signed a new contract until 2026 with a considerable pay rise.
A bromance with Haaland
Given that considerably talented defenders like Cancelo and Oleksandr Zinchenko have been left with little choice than to leave the club after falling down the pecking order, as have brilliant attackers like Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus, it says a lot about Stones' character and ability that he has remained at City for so long.
He is practically part of the furniture and hugely popular in the dressing room, often seen hanging out with Erling Haaland.
They have been seen talking animatedly about whether they'd rather be chased by a crocodile or a hippo, while the Norwegian made a hilarious impression of the defender's Yorkshire accent and his inability to pronounce the Louvre museum in a recent social media post.
Bernardo Silva's dog, meanwhile, is named 'John Stones', as the Portugal international wanted to imitate how he communicates with his team-mate on the pitch when he calls his French Bulldog.
Among City supporters, meanwhile, he is something of a cult figure. He might not be a born-and-bred Mancunian like Phil Foden but, even with his thick South Yorkshire accent, City fans consider him as one of their own.
Given the topsy-turvy journey he has been on at the club in the last seven years, it is little wonder they love him so much.