Once feted as a footballing defender in the style of Bobby Moore, poor John Stones has somehow slipped to being fourth-choice centre back at Manchester City and following Wednesday night’s Champions League dead rubber against Basle, still hasn’t been involved in a clean sheet for almost four months.
The £49million defender looked bereft of confidence after getting the call from Pep Guardiola for the first time since his part in City’s FA Cup debacle at Wigan. Among others, England manager Gareth Southgate – a firm admirer – will hope the 23-year-old recovers his form fast.
After an impressive start to the season, Stones injured his hamstring in a 2-0 win against Leicester City on November 18.
John Stones battles with Basle’s Dimitri Oberlin during Wednesday’s Champions League tie
Since his return against Watford on January 2, he has looked fragile, not helped by City paying a club record £57m for Aymeric Laporte in the last transfer window and captain Vincent Kompany being restored to fitness. With Nicolas Otamendi outstanding this campaign, Stones must fear how much action he’s going to see before the World Cup.
A home tie against Basle looked an ideal opportunity for Stones to get his rhythm back. City hammered the Swiss champions 4-0 in the first leg and extended their aggregate lead early through Gabriel Jesus.
Yet Stones looked hesitant with and without the ball. A Rolls Royce with exhaust problems. His famed passing was restricted to safe 10-yard balls, often sideways.
And when he faced his first serious defensive test after 17 minutes, he backed off alarmingly as Blas Riveros motored forward at pace. Eventually, Riveros was allowed to square a pass to Mohamed Elyounoussi.
Stones had been out of favour under boss Pep Guardiola before being recalled at the Etihad
It wasn’t a calamatious error from Stones but neither was it top-class defending from the player who allowed Will Grigg a free run to capitalise on Kyle Walker’s mistake to score for Wigan three weeks ago.
City have kept six clean sheets this year but not in the eight matches in which Stones has featured.
Given the individual superiority of Guardiola’s personnel, Basle had limited possession, just 24 per cent in the first half, and hence Stones had little to do. But it was the lack of ambition with his passing that gave a clue to his inner thoughts.
Perhaps his manager had told him to keep things simple to build up tempo. Remember, it was November that he last had a regular run of games.
When Basle did threaten, Stones didn’t appear to press with any urgency. After 32 minutes, Riveros ran on goal, Stones moved across to cover but didn’t close the visiting winger, and his shot on goal forced Claudio Bravo to save.
Stones applauds the home fans at the Etihad following a difficult evening against Basle
With Manchester City’s progress to the quarter-finals guaranteed, the second half was played at a walking pace, no serious test for any player.
When highly-rated Dmitri Oberlin upped the tempo after an hour, Stones turned one way, then the other, and was glad to see partner Laporte stop the Cameroonian with a solid tackle.
However, Stones was blameless for Basle taking the lead after 71 minutes through Michael Lang. That was Laporte’s fault, lethargically moving over to cover Lang, and watching the ball fly past Bravo by the time he arrived.
Laporte is going to be the future of City however. Stones has work to do. Southgate will be desperate to take him to Russia but a starting place must now be in doubt.