Over the last week, there has been a prevailing trend of managers in Manchester leaping to the defence of their most expensive signings of the summer transfer window.
But whilst Jose Mourinho’s accusation that envy is at the heart of the scathing criticism thrown Paul Pogba’s way this season smacked of the Manchester United manager protesting a little too much, Pep Guardiola’s public backing of centre-back John Stones was far more convincing.
“John Stones has more balls than everyone here. I am delighted to have John with all the huge amount of mistakes he has, I love him. Because it’s not easy to play central defender with this manager. That’s why I admire my defenders a lot.”
At first glance, Stones’ form this season has struggled to justify the lofty price-tag that took him to the Etihad Stadium from Everton last summer. His 20 Premier League starts have produced just four clean sheets, his presence in the starting XI has provided a win rate increase of just 3%, he’s committed the third-most defensive errors of any centre-back in the division and stat enthusiasts Whoscored.com have issued him an average performance rating of only 6.71. It drops to 6.66 in the Champions League.
Hardly the impact you’d expect from a near £50million acquisition, but there are some serious caveats to consider here – and not just the fact Stones is only 22 years of age, with only 100 Premier League appearances under his belt, still learning his trade and settling into life at one of Europe’s biggest clubs with greater expectations than he’s ever experienced throughout his career.
Indeed, it may seem counter-intuitive considering how much the club have spent on their defence in recent seasons, but right now, acting as the last bastion of defence in this overly attacking City side has got to be one of the hardest jobs in the Premier League.
Stones has spent the season sweeping behind a raft of regressing full-backs who’ve always been concerned more with going forward than towards their own goal, playing alongside a wing-back thrown into the heart of defence in the form of Aleksandar Kolorov and behind an engine room that has more often than not consisted of just one player – usually Fernandinho – trying to balance out the four-man attacking midfield in front of him.
In a nutshell, City don’t set up to protect their defence in the same way as Chelsea, Manchester United or Tottenham Hotspur, the three clubs with the best goals conceded records in the Premier League. The back line is left continually exposed by an open attack and even more so in the centre, as the full-backs look to push on and inevitably leave gaps in the channels.
That’s the kind of set-up only the very best defenders in the world can consistently cope with and that usually depends on the attack playing its part, putting so much pressure on the other team that their opportunities to get forward become minimal. City haven’t even scored the most goals of any side in the English top flight this season, despite Guardiola’s heavy emphasis on relentless offence, so their attack isn’t seeing off games in the manner that should make Stones’ life much easier and their system doesn’t offer the protection most centre-backs would expect in the Premier League.
On top of that, Stones was bought on the basis that he’d become City’s ball-playing defender, playing out of the back whenever possible or even driving into midfield with the ball at his feet. He can’t just give up on that style now, after setting his new club back a record sum for an English defender, simply because he’s made a few mistakes and drawn the criticism that nearly always comes with such a hefty price-tag. Guardiola wouldn’t accept it, and neither should the England international.
It’s all about context and the system suiting the player. Take Gerard Pique; he completely failed at Manchester United but will be remembered as one of the most technically gifted defenders of all time and an integral part of how Barcelona played under Guardiola, as they spent three years well above the competition domestically and in Europe. The Spaniard’s ability on the ball, regularly stepping into midfield, was pivotal to the Nou Camp outfit’s domination under Guardiola.
John Stones has completed the same number of league take-ons this season (17) as Cristiano Ronaldo.
Bringing the ball out from the back. pic.twitter.com/kMQa5UbKE7
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 20, 2017
And in terms of replicating the 2010 World Cup winner’s efforts at the Eithad Stadium, Stones is already on the right path. Harry Maguire is the only Premier League centre-back (to have made more than ten appearances) boasting a better return than Stones’ 0.9 successful dribbles per match this term with 1.1 – in fact, he’s completed the same number of take-ons as serial Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo – whilst he ranks sixth throughout PL centre-halves for completed passes per match and first throughout the entire divisions, all positions included, for pass completion at 91.8%.
It makes you wonder if City’s defence would have the same problems if everybody was as talented on the ball as Stones and everybody was on the former Evertonian’s wavelength. Those sloppy passes may not seem so sloppy if team-mates read his actions properly, but admittedly, his mistakes can become frustrating for the supporters.
Yet, as Guardiola points out, the most impressive thing about Stones is that he gets up, carries on, and continues to try playing his game; he doesn’t go into his shell, he doesn’t shirk his responsibilities on the ball, he doesn’t try to hide behind more senior team-mates.
The longer that mindset is maintained, the better Stones will become. But in the meantime, we should all cut a bit of slack for a young player undertaking an incredibly tough job for one of the biggest clubs in the world, in the face of enormous expectations.