Everyone is raving about Kevin De Bruyne and the Manchester City attack, but there’s a player at the other end of the pitch who’s impressing just as much this season. Whisper it quietly, but it’s John Stones.
All the talk around Manchester City’s flying start to the season has centered around their attacking play. And understandably so: Pep Guardiola’s side have become the first side to score 29 goals in their first eight Premier League games since Everton 123 years ago. It took Stuart Pearce’s City team in 2006-07 an entire season to rack up that number.
Not only do the statistics look good, but some of their creativity and finishing has been mesmerising. Another former City boss, Mark Hughes, said after witnessing De Bruyne destroy his Stoke City team that the Belgium playmaker is “head and shoulders above any player in the Premier League” right now.
Guardiola, though, would always rather focus on the entire side rather than just individuals or units.
“There is a tendency to split attack and defence,” he said after City had stuck seven past the Potters. “But in football, you cannot. When you attack well, you defend well, and when you defend well, you attack well.”
City’s defensive numbers are almost as impressive as their prolific attack.
Guardiola was unhappy to see his defence breached in five minutes around half-time on Saturday as many times as they have been during the previous 677 minutes. But one deflected goal and an unfortunate own goal doesn’t change the fact that City have been dramatically improved at the back this season.
Of course, an improved defensive performance should come as no surprise and would have been demanded by Guardiola’s employers given he invested over £150million on a new goalkeeper and three new full-backs over the summer.
Ederson has offered a solidity that Claudio Bravo simply could not, while Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy have been equally impressive shuttling up and down the flanks.
But just as striking, and perhaps even more pleasing for Guardiola, has been the improvement shown by Stones.
“John Stones has more personality than all of us here together in this room,” Guardiola said after the 1-1 draw agaisnt Liverpool in March. “More balls than everyone here. I like that. I love him.”
Guardiola was referring to how difficult centre-halves have it under his leadership. As well as being expected to defend vast spaces behind them, they must also step forward in both defensive and attacking senses. And after an inconsistent debut season at City, this term Stones has showed why Guardiola is so fond of him.
In Vincent Kompany’s absence, the 23-year-old has stepped up to see to it that the captain, so often the decisive presence at the heart of the back four when fit, has not been missed – which is handy considering he often isn’t it these days.
Kompany, to his credit, foresaw Stones’ improvement, when many outside the Etihad wondered last season whether the Barnsley-born stopper was destined to become yet another over-hyped English youngster who would fail to fulfil their perceived potential.
“I think Stonesy will be one of the world’s best defenders,” Kompany said at the end of last season. “I have no doubt about it.
“He is in that period now where he has experienced a lot of new things and has had to go through a lot of stuff that he hasn’t come across before. He will thrive once the team gets going again.
“He has everything the manager likes – that ability to play from the back. But he also recognises how important it is for him to win his challenges, win his physical battles, and he has improved a lot in that.”
That improvement has been even more rapid in the captain’s absence, with Stones imposing himself more in every aspect of City’s game.
Defensively, he is engaging in more duels and winning more aerial battles, while the former Everton centre-half has made half the number of the tackles he made last season in just a third of the minutes.
It was undoubtedly in those defensive duties that Stones had the most scope for development. In possession, few doubted his talent.
However, even on the ball the England star has been much improved.
In fact, no one in the Premier League to have played at least one hour of football this season has a higher passing accuracy rate. Stones has completed a hugely impressive 97.12 per cent of his 555 passes, which is an improvement on last season’s average of 91.7 per cent.
Of the other title contenders’ defenders, only Nacho Monreal gets close, having made 549 passes with a 92 per cent success rate. However, the Arsenal defender has played 136 minutes more than Stones, and has lost possession 60 times – 40 more than Stones.
Cutting out the mistakes has been key to Stones’ improvement. Last season, he made three errors which led to goals and four that led to shots on City’s goal. This term: not a single one.
That is despite Stones having an average of 16 touches more per game and making 20 more passes per 90 minutes.
Given this type of form, it’s almost impossible to imagine an England team in Russia without Stones at the heart of its defence. It probably won’t have escaped the England boss that the Three Lions have yet to concede a goal in competitive matches when Stones has played – a run that stretches for 10 games.
Before Russia, Stones has far more pressing concerns with City, who appear capable of achieving whatever they put their minds to this season.
If they sustain anything like their current form, then De Bruyne will be the runaway winner of the Player of the Year award.
But Stones’ form will be similarly as crucial, especially when City’s challenges become more testing as the season wears on.