Guardiola needs Stones to stand up after rocky period

From pulled thigh muscles to a black eye and shin-pad problems, little about John Stones' season at Man City has been straightforward.

John Stones is Guardiola's last man standing, with a season-defining trip to Anfield on the horizon.   -  Getty Images

For a player who built his reputation as a youthful Rolls-Royce of a centre-back, there has been a jarring element of slapstick around Manchester City's John Stones of late.

During the closing stages of an eventually comfortable 3-0 win over Aston Villa, the England international blocked a shot flush in the face and had to be groggily helped to his feet by City's medical staff. It was a scene that suited a cracking black eye collected at the end of last week's win at Crystal Palace.

Similarly, Stones sporting the shiner when Pep Guardiola tore into him for not putting his shin pads on quickly enough to replace an injured Rodri during the midweek thrashing of Atalanta created something of a class-clown vibe.

The 25-year-old was back in City's starting line-up against Villa for the first time since his second ill-timed thigh injury of a season yet to click fully into gear.

Stones' first setback denied him the chance to put down an early marker in City's post-Vincent Kompany era. Then, in September, he followed knee-injury victim Aymeric Laporte into the treatment room.

Concerns about match fitness would have been natural, but the sight of Fernandinho and Rodri — two career midfielders — starting ahead of the specialist Stones over the past week spoke of a discontentment on Guardiola's part that goes deeper than how quickly the Yorkshireman is able to dress himself.

 

Despite once famously commending Stones' testicular fortitude, Guardiola has shifted the man he made his first major defensive signing at City to the margins during its back-to-back triumphant title run-ins.

At the end of 2018-19, he started two games in all competitions after limping out of a 1-0 Premier League win over Bournemouth at the start of March. An unprecedented domestic treble arrived with Stones relegated to the supporting cast.

Circumstances have now aligned to make this a pivotal moment in the career of a player who should be coming into his prime. Kompany left, Harry Maguire did not join, Laporte got injured and Nicolas Otamendi — who will never appear less accident-prone than Stones, even if the black eye lasts a lifetime — suffered a bad back.

 

Rodri pulled a hamstring and Fernandinho's introduction to the heart of defence, although impressive for the most part this week, cannot really escape a penalty conceded in the first half versus Atalanta and an avoidable red card against Villa in the final analysis.

Battered and visibly bruised, Stones is Guardiola's last man standing, with a season-defining trip to Anfield on the horizon.

His felt like a mixed bag against Villa. Before second-half goals from Raheem Sterling, David Silva and Ilkay Gundogan ensured City's ambitious and pugnacious visitors ran out of road, Stones almost gave it the lead. A pass straight to John McGinn recalled those awfully absent-minded moments that still come too frequently, such as when England's Nations League Finals ambitions came crashing down against Netherlands in June.

 

A brilliant Ederson save and the scrambling efforts of Fernandinho and Joao Cancelo bailed him out. Stones' own brave block shortly afterwards ricocheted against his arm and survived a VAR review.

Around all that, the centre-back won all five of his duels — proving to be quietly dominant in the air — conceded no fouls (take note, Fernandinho), made five clearances, won possession four times and completed 91.9 per cent of his passes. It amounts to a performance he can and must build on.

Into stoppage time and after the face block, McGinn's shot on the rebound bounced back off the post and hit City's No. 5 — stationed in the goalmouth — on the back of the knee. The ball spun through his legs and into Ederson's grateful grasp. Perhaps Stones' luck is finally starting to turn.

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