"There's a lot of things we need to look at moving forward, both individually and as a team. We weren't at our best.”
Following last night’s defeat to FC Basel, John Stones talked of the need to learn from the mistakes made against the current Swiss champions. After 18 months spent under Guardiola’s tutelage, the central defender still appears to have much to learn.
Widely tipped as not just the heir to Vincent Kompany but a future England captain and a player worthy of constructing a team around, Stones arrived amid much hype and hope when making the geographically-short move from the blue half of Merseyside.
An understated first season littered with errors was followed by a bright start to this season, however, the young defender appears to have regressed at the turn of this calendar year.
A partial recovery
Since his return from a hamstring injury picked up in November, Stones has subsequently looked short of confidence in the games he’s appeared in. Prior to this six-week lay-off, the 23-year-old was one of - if not the - most improved player this season at City.
Commanding of his penalty area, comfortable on the ball and an emerging leader on the pitch, it appeared that he was finally set to deliver on the promise which came with the then exorbitant fee for a defender.
A brace against Feyenoord in September which capped a strong defensive performance seemed to suggest a new beginning for Stones.
This was something he strengthened in the following months as he went on to establish a strong partnership with Nicolás Otamendi at the heart of City’s defence. This good foundation has recently been washed away by an alarmingly quick
Of the 16 fixtures which have passed since his return against Watford on January 2nd, the second-leg tie against Basel was only the 8th match Stones has started for City. Having kept six clean sheets during this time, it’s notable that none of them have come from a game in which Stones has been involved.
While he did make a solid return against the Hornets, his next game against Burnley was less convincing with a failed clearance leading to an Ashley Barnes goal.
A clumsy challenge against Bristol City resulted in a penalty before he struggled against Liverpool’s fluid attack and was brushed aside by Roberto Firmino in the build-up to the Reds second goal.
More errors followed involving poor clearances and inaccurate passing from a player who now looks plagued with hesitancy.
With a fit-again Vincent Kompany and new-signing Aymeric Laporte now as competition for a starting spot, it could easily be the case that this drop in standard has demoted Stones to 4th-choice centre-back for the Cityzens.
The missing ingredient
In theory, Stones has all of the attributes that Guardiola requires of a defender.
Having shined from an early age, the early confidence which helped him catch the eye has become deeply buried within his character though. The reason for this could well be due to the one aspect which has been missing from his game in recent years. Consistency.
The season before he joined City he was part of an Everton team with one of the league’s worst defensive records. Having conceded the third-most home goals in the league and with a total goals-against column reading 55, the Toffees struggled to keep clean sheets.
While Stones has shown plenty of glimmers of a being a great player, he is yet to go through a sustained period of delivering for his team.
Having missed the Euro 2016 tournament for England due to a run of poor form, Stones is in serious danger of missing out on a place in the starting lineup in this summer’s World Cup. Gareth Southgate has been adamant that only players in form will be selected to represent the country and Stones currently leaves this box unchecked.
If it truly is a confidence issue that Stones is presently suffering, Guardiola will see this in training and have no choice but to omit the defender from important games. While he is still a young player honing his skills, the time for reviving a flagging player is not during the final run-in of a season.
This will present a difficult choice for Guardiola in the coming months. Does he persevere with a player who has shown flashes of great potential or does he turn to a new pairing for next season’s challenges?
What do you think? Is John Stones in danger of losing his place? Let us know by commenting in the box below.