Considering he wasn’t even a regular starter for Manchester City during the second half of the 2017/18 campaign, which saw him make just 16 Premier League starts in total, John Stones’ emergence as the lynchpin of England’s forward-thinking back three has been one of the Three Lions’ biggest success stories of the World Cup.
It’s a role that’s highlighted his ability to dictate possession and distribute meticulously into midfield, two qualities that have always been attributed to the one-time Barnsley youngster.
But what Stones produced on Saturday in the World Cup quarter-final against Sweden was a slightly different performance, one that showed he possesses the defensive nous and physicality to match the technical quality he offers on the ball.
During his time with Everton and Manchester City, that’s probably been the biggest criticism of Stones – fantastic in possession, yet often the culprit of basic defensive errors. Some have argued he simply doesn’t think like a centre-back who spots danger before it truly materialises.
Sweden, while by no means the most formidable team at this World Cup, represented a difficult test for Stones. Their forward line has been ruthlessly efficient, if not consistently effective, throughout this tournament and the high balls into Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen have proved awkward for opposing defences to deal with.
If they’re not winning headers and knockdowns, they’re at least creating the kind of chaos that leads to goalscoring chances by drawing mistakes for defenders and creating space n dangerous areas.
In theory then, everything was set up for Stones to slip on a proverbial banana skin; a physical centre-forward pairing, fronting a team that play direct football and build their game-plan around opportunistically pouncing on the half-chances they’re occasionally fed. Stones though, more than held his own by flexing qualities we wouldn’t immediately associate with him – winning the second-most aerial duels and making the second-most clearances of any England player after centre-back accomplice Harry Maguire.
The 6 foot 2 defender also weighed in with two tackles but perhaps most impressively, Stones managed such a formidable defensive display without committing a single foul and maintaining a passing accuracy of 88%. Indeed, while England’s World Cup performances have provided a massive endorsement of Stones’ quality on the ball, he’s shown real maturity in the more traditional aspects of centre-back play as well.
With competition for a starting berth high at the Etihad Stadium following the January arrival of Aymeric Laporte, the extra grittiness Stones has shown this summer could be enough to force him back into Guardiola’s starting XI on a permanent basis.
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