What next for John Stones at Manchester City?
John Stones has long been heralded as the next best thing in England's defence. His qualities have seen manager Gareth Southgate compare him to Gerard Pique and Jerome Boateng. The 23-year-old isn't the archetypal English centre-back known for lumping the ball forward and taking delight in making crunching tackles.
After securing a move to Manchester City in August 2016, Stones was expected to improve under Pep Guardiola. Despite visible progress in the defender's game, the recent arrival of Aymeric Laporte has led to questions - is there room in City's team for both men?
Stones started this season superbly, forming an impressive partnership with Argentina International Nicholas Otamendi. The clean sheets piled up, helping Man City create a significant advantage atop the Premier League table.
Guardiola is a big fan of Stones. The City boss feels he can turn him into another Pique. The Barcelona centre-back was signed by Pep in summer 2008 after an underwhelming spell at Manchester United. The now Catalan legend failed to dislodge Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. He left England with a lot to prove. The English press often criticised Pique's style of play: always wanting to pass out from the back, looking for the nearest man. Guardiola, however, took no heed. He transformed the United misfit into a treble winner in under a year.
Stones was erratic in his first season at the Etihad, struggling to adapt to Guardiola's specific instructions. However, the England international looked more solid at the beginning of this campaign. He cut out the needless errors and became the player Pep expected after spending close to £50 million to sign him from Everton.
Despite Stones' improved performances this season, Guardiola brought in a £57 million-rated Athletic Bilbao centre-back. Pep has been chasing Laporte since arriving in Manchester. The young Frenchman finally signed for City on Deadline Day.
Stones has looked shaky since returning from injury in early January. He was poor in the League Cup semi-final first leg against Bristol City, and Roberto Firmino left him for dead in the 4-3 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield last month. Purchasing Laporte suggests Guardiola wants more solidity at the back. With Otamendi showing consistent form this season, he won't be benched. The former Valencia man has been one of City's standout performers, meaning Stones' place in the side is at risk.
Laporte is perhaps the archetypal Guardiola defender: ice cool, calm in possession and excellent at reading the game. Stones will be looking over his shoulder nervously. He must impress sufficiently over the coming weeks to ensure his position at City isn't lost.
With the World Cup approaching, Stones needs regular game time to stake a claim in England's starting eleven. Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Michael Keane and Alfie Mawson are just several centre-backs vying for international selection. To impress Gareth Southgate, Stones must reach new levels of excellence. His Man City form will be crucial.