As Manchester City continue to steamroll their way through the Premier League and Champions League this season it is their manager, Pep Guardiola, and the vast array of attacking talent at the club’s disposal that have been the focus of much critical acclaim.
It is not hard to see why. City have scored 31 goals in their opening 11 league fixtures of the new campaign, making them by some distance the most prolific team in English football, and have produced some of the most enthralling, free-flowing attacking football that has been seen over the past decade.
Guardiola has implemented a playing style and philosophy at the Etihad Stadium that is both exciting to watch and difficult for opponents to prevent and the Citizens are threatening to leave their title rivals far behind them.
However, whilst it only fair that the likes of Sergio Aguero, Leroy Sane and Kevin de Bruyne accept the plaudits for their fine early season form, it is at the other end of the pitch where John Stones has emerged as an equally as important figure in this current City team.
Early criticism and struggle at the Etihad
John Stones has certainly not had an easy ride at the Etihad Stadium since joining Manchester City in the summer of 2016 and he has had to contend with a deluge of criticism from the media since the moment he put pen to paper on a contract at the club.
Having emerged as one of the brightest young central defenders in the country after flourishing at Everton under the guidance of Roberto Martinez, there was little surprise that some of the so-called ‘big clubs’ were tempted by the possibility of securing his signature.
However, it was City that moved decisively in August 2016 to confirm his transfer from Everton for an eye-watering fee of £47.5 million.
The transfer value, which made Stones the world’s second most expensive defender, brought criticism from some quarters, who derived the idea that City should be spending such a large sum of money on a player that still had so much to prove.
The then-22-year-old had developed a reputation at Goodison Park for being an extremely talented ball-playing defender and yet there were concerns over his consistency, ability to defend and apparent habit of making costly mistakes.
City were certainly not buying the finished article and had gambled a significant portion of their transfer budget on what was fundamentally a player with potential.
Stones’ first season at the Etihad Stadium was far from perfect and many of the concerns cited over the summer of 2016 appeared to be true.
He was part of a defensive unit that looked incredibly fragile at times, although the players around him were equally at fault, and he received intense scrutiny and criticism from the media after a number of costly errors. The young defender’s price-tag made him an easy corner for the ever-present sceptics.
However, the new campaign has seen Stones emerge as one of the cornerstones of City’s unbeaten start to the season and his performances in the centre of the defensive unit have been just as significant as the exploits of the forward line.
He has started to fulfil his potential and looks more composed, confident and reassured than ever before – the 23-year-old looks twice the player that he was just six months ago.
No one has ever doubted his ball-playing ability and Stones fits beautifully into Pep Guardiola’s total-football philosophy. However, he has also improved the defensive side of his game and is a much more dominant presence on the pitch than he has been in previous seasons.
Week-by-week he seems to improve and it is significant that the central defender has been brilliant consistent so far this campaign and no longer looks prone to fundamental errors.
Stones looks every inch to be one of the best defenders in Europe and you sense that there is still plenty of potential that is yet to be fulfilled.
Transformation or evolution?
So, what has happened over the previous six months to transform John Stones into one of the most prominent central defenders in Europe?
Pep Guardiola is certainly a key influence and it is no surprise that one of the best managers in the modern game has been able to facilitate a drastic improvement in Stones’ game.
It is also worth noting that the Spaniard is a tactical innovator and his unique philosophy and training methods can take a prolonged period of time to be fully understood by his players.
Every Manchester City player appears to have fully grasped the tactical initiatives that Guardiola has implemented and the initial year of learning appears to have set the team up for a dominant second season.
It should also not be understated what a difference some of Guardiola’s summer signings have made.
Last year Stones was deployed in front of Claudio Bravo, a goalkeeper that appeared completely incapable of making a save, and it is perhaps little wonder that the uncertainty that the Chilean emitted spread through the entire defensive unit.
It is also worth highlighting that the drastically diminished talents of Bacary Sagna at right-back resulted in Stones often being overloaded by attackers or dragged out of position in order to cover the ageing Frenchman.
However, the summer saw the arrival of Benfica goalkeeper Ederson and Tottenham Hotspur full back Kyle Walker. Now, surrounded by a world-class goalkeeper and a top quality right back, Stones appears much more confident in the players around him which is only enhancing his performance levels.
The young defender is thriving in an environment where he is surrounded by superior players when compared to his colleagues in his debut season at the club.
Finally, it is also worth remembering what City bought in the summer of 2016 when they spent £47.5 million on Stones.
He was a young central defender that had bags of untapped potential and there were few people around the Etihad Stadium who thought that he was the complete, finished article.
He received a lot of criticism in his first season at the club, mainly based on his price tag, and many of the errors that he made were little more than a case of a young man learning his trade.
The English media revel in building up expectations around players and then knocking them back down again – the obsessive criticism of Stones during his debut campaign seems completely out of proportion when you consider that he was still a young player who was learning the game.
Nonetheless, Guardiola knew what he was buying and his faith in the defender’s talent has never wavered.
Now, just over one year on, Stones has established himself as one of the best central defenders in Europe, a key figure in City’s unbeaten start to the campaign and will probably be one of the first names on the England team sheet when Gareth Southgate’s team travel to Russia in 2018.
It looks like those critics will be proved wrong after all.