Many questioned the world record fee for a defender (£47.5m), that Manchester City spent to bring the highly talented Stones to the Etihad this summer, citing this as another example of ‘football going mad’. However, after only glimpses in the light blue shirt, the Englishman already looks a class signing and a perfect fit for Pep Guardiola’s slick new side. A majestic display against West Ham United in City’s last league game was cut short by an eye injury, as Stones played a key role in a scintillating first half performance from City.
Stones’ last season at Everton was a struggle, to put it bluntly. The team had a highly disappointing campaign, which eventually led to the sacking of manager Roberto Martinez – one of the 22-year olds biggest fans. Under the weight of new expectations, Stones failed to perform consistently enough, as sub-standard displays led to heavy criticism from the Goodison Park faithful before the defender was humiliatingly demoted to the substitute’s bench.
The previous summer, he had been hot property. His proposed move to champions Chelsea was one of the more notable transfer sagas of the summer window. In the end, despite a written transfer request from the player, Everton managed to hold on to their asset in what was deemed a massive coup for the club. Stones’ subsequent loss of form shortly after though, left many pointing the finger of blame at the young man for being arrogant and disinterested in the wake of the move he had so fancied, falling through. Such statements, unfortunately, surmised the disdain shown from certain corners towards Stones, in what was a tricky period for the former Barnsley man.
English football has not been blessed with many ball-playing centre-halves down the years, alternatively, we have been given the joy of watching defenders treat the ball like a hot potato. Stones is different, and by not just ‘smashing the ball into row Z’, he received critiques from most notably Jamie Carragher, who involved with Thierry Henry in a heated debate over the matter, live on Sky Sports. You couldn’t help but feel this was like David Brent and John Lennon debating music. Stones faced many similar views from other pundits, journalists and fans. The Everton supporters, in particular, were becoming increasingly irritated by his style of play – letting out angered groans whenever he almost got caught playing out from the back. It was as if, the English footballing public wanted him to fail so that they could slam him and the way he arrogantly ‘messed around with the ball’.
Stones, who had looked so confident and at ease just months earlier, was now shaky and suffering from fragile confidence. Near the end of the season, as Everton continued to underwhelm and he came under more scrutiny, he began playing the ball long more often, to desperately appease the hordes of haters ready to jump down his throat. Commentators on Sky Sports or BT Sport would hail such play. ‘It’s good to see Stones not messing around with it this time, perhaps he is learning his lesson’ – was the general rhetoric. Incredulously, we all scratched our heads over where we are going wrong in this country, in the aftermath of England’s humiliating exit from Euro 2016, at the hands of Iceland shortly after!
Fortunately, things just work out sometimes in a player’s career and that was certainly the case when Stones was offered the opportunity to work under Guardiola at Manchester City. Martinez was also an advocate of his style, but Everton did not provide the right atmosphere for such a player to flourish. The now Belgium manager was under red-hot pressure from the supporters at Goodison Park, who were sceptical of his approach, to say the least. Meanwhile, Guardiola is already idolised at City. The wish of the owners is to become the best in the world and to do so playing attractive football. The club wants players like Stones, appreciating what he brings to a team, which was not the case at his former club.
Guardiola has taken a real liking to the England international too. Such was his keenness to get Stones on board that he managed to persuade the City board to part with almost £50m to secure the services of a man who endured a poor season last campaign. During matches, you can see Pep barking out orders at his new signing to organise the defence, of which he appears to have been made the leader of. To emphasise Guardiola’s attempts at nurturing the player – against West Ham, Stones wandered out of position temporarily, strolling up-field to join in an attack. Realising his mistake, he apologised to a disgruntled Guardiola who had his arms held out in furious bewilderment. A lesson learned indeed for the world’s most expensive defender!
Stones, as also taken to his new boss, praising him extensively in a recent interview in which he inferred that his failed move to Chelsea had proven to be a blessing, in what came as a slap down to the then boss at Stamford Bridge and Guardiola’s bitter rival, Jose Mourinho.
“For me personally, I am now working with the best manager in the world. I’m over the moon to be at City and learning from a manager like Pep Guardiola.
“Obviously I am going to make some mistakes, but it is how I look to correct those and keep moving forward as a player. I came here because I want to be a winner. I’m like every other player – I just want to win some silverware.”
Pep is the right manager, at the right club, at the right time for Stones. He is very fortunate. There have been many English players down the years who have seen their skill go to waste because they did not fit into the archaic British style of football. Stones was on his way to that graveyard, but fortunately under Pep now, he will be allowed to play to his strengths and to also improve on them considerably. The freedom with which he now plays with is a joy to watch after his struggles at Everton. There, he looked to be playing with the weight of the world and 30,000 odd Scousers on his shoulders. Now, he is relaxed and free, despite the hefty price tag hanging around his neck. This gem of a talent is now free to fulfil his sizable potential!