Team sheet anxiety is a particular feature of the Pep Guardiola era for Manchester City fans and, recently, John Stones has been at the heart of some of his most interesting calls.
For January’s crunch clash with Chelsea at the Etihad Stadium, Guardiola made the surprise call to bench defensive leader Ruben Dias and pair Stones with Aymeric Laporte at the heart of his defence.
An early slip that almost let Romelu Lukaku in aside, the England centre-back was imperious in a 1-0 win, although he has shone when deployed outside of his specialist position.
Guardiola’s announced XI for December’s meeting with Leeds United prompted plenty of head-scratching. Was this the return of a back three?
To the surprise of many, Stones lined up at right-back as the Blues broke to a 7-0 win. He reprized the role in last week’s 2-0 victory against Brentford, a call that took on added significance as City prepare to face Sporting Lisbon in the Champions League last-16 on Tuesday without the suspended Kyle Walker.
You might have noticed a common thread through those Leeds, Chelsea and Brentford wins. Nil.
In each of those matches, the opposition failed to breach City and this is usually the case when Stones is around.
Across his eight Premier League appearances this season, City have only conceded eleven with Stones on the field. That was after he came off the bench against Crystal Palace with City 1-0 down and reduced to 10 men by Laporte’s red card.
Stones excelled that day, showing his famed range of passing from deep, but the depleted Blues were unable to find an equalizer and Conor Gallagher scored on the break for the Eagles in stoppage time.
Aside from that, there has been absolutely no change for domestic rivals with Stones around, with City racking up seven unblemished wins. It has contributed to the Blues letting in just 14 goals after 25 matches – their lowest at this stage of a Premier League season (as per StatCity).
In many respects, it has been an unusual season for the former Everton player but these returns hint at the huge personal development he has made over the past couple of years.
Towards the end of the 2019/20 season, as Stones struggled for form and fitness, his City career appeared to be meandering towards an unsatisfactory close.
Dias’ arrival for £62.8million in September 2020 at the end of the same transfer window when Nathan Ake joined from Bournemouth could have heralded the end, but Stones knuckled down and turned things around.
Him and Dias established a formidable alliance at centre-back, and something of a bromance, as City won the Premier League, Carabao Cup and reached the Champions League final.
Stones was then an ever-present as England reached the final of Euro 2020, although his late return from that incredible summer, a few niggling fitness problems and Laporte’s resurgent form have complicated matters this time around.
The young defender who once displayed brittle confidence and a propensity for errors would very possibly have been defeated by this situation – finding himself back on the bench and in rotation line-ups on the back of the season of his career.
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But at 27, Stones is a self-assured performer. There being no discernible drop in his performances levels this season from last is a testament to that.
As City return to their quest for the holy grail, Guardiola will again preach his mantra of needing to cut out the mistakes and to give nothing away. Champions League games and campaigns are decided in moments.
The fact City give very little away at all whenever Stones is on the pitch this season means he might have a bigger role to play in that quest than many anticipate.
How do you think John Stones is playing this season? Follow City Is Ours editor Dom Farrell on Twitter to get involved in the discussion and give us your thoughts in the comments section below.