I was at the Etihad at the weekend to see Manchester City in person for the first time this season. As I looked over the starting line-up prior to kick-off I was excited by the prospect of witnessing the attacking players in the home side. I was pleasantly surprised by the player who caught my eye during the game though. John Stones was my man of the match in what, for me, was an exceptional performance by the Englishman.
When you are actually at a match you see things differently to watching on television. I’ve viewed the majority of City’s games this season on TV. The array of attacking talent in Pep Guardiola’s side have, quite rightly, grabbed my attention. When looking on from the stands at the weekend though, it was the performance of Stones which stood out.
The last time I saw Stones in person was last seasons 5-3 classic in the Champions League against Monaco. That night Stones looked, to my untrained eye, to be a bit nervy and uncomfortable. Despite scoring on the night Stones was culpable for Radamel Falcao’s stunning second goal, Monaco’s third. Ponderous and almost unsure of himself on the ball at times, Stones looked a long way off the top centre back City hoped he would be. The difference between the player I saw that night and the version I saw against Burnley at the weekend, was notable.
John Stones was imperious throughout the 90 minutes against Burnley. He went about his defensive work in a composed and controlled manner. It was his contribution when his side had the ball that really stood out. His possession play and passing were exemplary. He continually broke Burnley’s defensive lines with incisive forward passing. It seemed for a while that almost every City attack began at the feet of the England international.
The centre back’s stats backed up his impressive performance. Over 100 passes made in the game with a success rate of 94%. With all due respect to Burnley’s Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes, Stones will face tougher opponents as the season goes on. It’s clear though, as with all the City players just now, the number 5’s confidence is sky high.
He still has his critics though. There will, as always, be those who claim Stones transfer fee outweighs his ability. Manchester United signed Rio Ferdinand for over £30 million, fifteen years ago. There wasn’t many calling Rio over-priced at the end of his career. Stylistically, Ferdinand is probably the closest comparison in terms of English centre backs. Rio was a more ball-playing defender than many of his contemporaries. In my opinion, Stones has the potential to be even better than his England predecessor. Under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, John Stones is in the best place to develop and improve and he’s doing exactly that.
In a team of headline makers, on top of their game, John Stones is emerging as a vital component in the side. Not just defensively, in terms of stopping opponents, but in embracing his managers ‘total footballing’ ethos. The continued brilliance of Kevin DeBruyne and scoring exploits of Aguero and Jesus are at the forefront of City's challenge. Not to mention the Silva's, Sane, Sterling and Walker who've all had deserved praise. In fact, it's almost impossible to leave any City player out at this point, such has been their high level of performance. It was a pleasure to watch Stones, in particular, at the weekend against Burnley. It was a performance beyond his years in terms of it's assuredness. The most promising thing for both Manchester City and England is, that at just 23-years-old, John Stones is getting better and better.