Has John Stones failed Manchester City?
Background image: Ed Higgins, CC BY 3.0
Pep Guardiola lavished praise on Aymeric Laporte after the Frenchman returned from a long layoff to help Manchester City secure a valuable 1-0 win against Sheffield United. The Catalan manager labelled the defender the best left-sided centre-back in the world. It was probably an admission that Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk is the best in the business, mind. But in the manager's view, Laporte is up there among the elite. The same could not be said of John Stones.
The Englishman was expected to be a key player for the Cityzens since joining from Everton in 2016. When a player is linked to the premier sides in Europe as he was back in 2015, much is expected. There was even talk of Chelsea wanting him to be the long-term replacement for John Terry. Back then, putting forth top-notch performances for Everton, it looked a real possibility.
However, Manchester City made the move first and secured his services for £37million ahead of the Blues. The future looked bright for the Barnsley-born defender. Playing under Guardiola was expected to bring huge rewards while the player was expected to develop. The former has come to pass, though the latter is a long way off. If anything, Stones has retrogressed. A player that was tipped to be among the top defenders in the world simply hasn't improved.
In fact, instead of being key to Manchester City, the team has succeeded in spite of him. Vincent Kompany and Laporte were the main actors at the back in City's success of the last two seasons. When the Belgian called time on his career at the Etihad Stadium, Stones was the man expected to step up and fill his shoes. But the England international has failed woefully. He is prone to costly mistakes that often cost the team valuable points.
That is not limited to club level. He was instrumental to England's failure to get past the Netherlands in the UEFA Nations League. Gareth Southgate subsequently left him out of his team for the remaining Euro 2020 qualifiers.
The fact that he is rarely fit also means Guardiola has not been able to count on him this season. The result is that while Manchester City are the top scorers in the Premier League by far, a poor defence has cost the team dearly in the title race. With Stones in the squad, the manager has elected to pair midfielder Fernandinho with either Nicolas Otamendi, teenager Eric Garcia or fellow midfielder Rodrigo. That's a damning verdict on Stones' failure to stand up and be counted.
His latest outing against Crystal Palace left much to be desired. In a game City dominated at home and was expected to pick up all three points, Stones' contribution midway through the first half put his team in a disadvantaged position. After committing a needless foul close to the centre circle, he headed over the resulting free-kick for a corner. And when the corner was taken, Cenk Tosun, the man he was marking, was allowed to head home scoring his first goal as a Crystal Palace player.
It was not surprising to see Roy Hogdson's men play ultra defensive all game to preserve their one goal lead. And so it took the Sky Blues digging deep to finally grab an equaliser through Sergio Aguero in the 82nd minute. Now the team was all out in search of the winner. It came in the 87th minute. Or so Guardiola thought. Well, John Stones had the final say.
Towards the end of the match, Wilfried Zaha picked up the ball close to the centre circle to launch a counter-attack. Any City supporter would have thought he was going to be stopped in his tracks. Except that Stones was the man marking him. The Palace winger ran all the way through the left wing to City's goal area. He then delivered a cross into the penalty box that bounced off Fernandinho for an unlikely equaliser deep into the 90th minute. The Etihad Stadium was stunned.
Guardiola was livid and understandably so. In the post-match interview, his professionalism would not allow him to call out the Englishman by name for blame. Yet his comments made the point clear. He said a single player's decision that cost the team. That under no circumstance should Zaha had been allowed to run all the way much less given the room to make the cross. In that situation, there was only one man who could have stopped him: Stones. But as it has become habitual, he failed when the team needed him the most to preserve a hard-fought lead. It's fair to say that for all of the high expectations put on him from City, Stones has failed the club.
That leaves Guardiola and City with a big decision to make following the team's collapse in the Premier League this season. Who are the players to cut loose in the summer to reinforce the squad? City's biggest problems have been at the back. It's clear the returning Laporte will need a high calibre centre-back as a regular partner next term. With Nicolas Otamendi on the wrong side of 30 and in poor form, he is as good as gone. The tough one is whether Stones should follow or be given more time to develop.
But it's difficult to see how much improvement can come from a player who is 25 and has spent the last four years of his career at such a top club under Guardiola's tutelage. What can he conjure up in the next few years that has not been seen? The club can choose to cash in on him in the summer. Then retain the excellent Garcia and Tosin Adarabioyo (who is doing well on loan at Blackburn) as backups from next season...