Why John Stones can still save his Man City career - Joleon Lescott analysis

By Joleon LescottFormer Man City and England defender
Match of the Day

John Stones' career is at a crossroads but my advice to him would be to stay at Manchester City and fight for his place.

This is a huge season for him, especially with the European Championship next summer, but I think the next few months could see him revive his career at Etihad Stadium and blossom with City.

If he does that, England would take care of itself.

Man City defender John Stones
Stones warms up before City's Champions League win over Real Madrid in August - he did not make it off the bench in that tie. He was injured when the Premier League restarted in June, and started only two games behind closed doors, against Newcastle and Bournemouth

Of course there is work to do - Stones is no longer first choice for club or country and has only featured in four of Gareth Southgate's past six squads - but he is still only 26 and I am a firm believer that centre-halves get better with age. I know I did.

I was 27 when I made the same move that Stones did, and left Everton in a big-money transfer to City. Virgil van Dijk was 26 when he joined Liverpool from Southampton.

There's a reason that experience counts. You just hit an age where, when things happen during games, you know that you have been here before. It's not just about learning from your past mistakes, it can even be that you know where to stand because of what happened last time.

Looking at the past couple of years, injuries have held Stones back and he has suffered from a loss of form and maybe confidence too. Put together, that has seen him drop down the pecking order at City.

But I just look at the players he is competing with for a place in Pep Guardiola's side and think his situation could change very quickly. His quality, and what he brings to the team when he is at his best, is not in doubt.

Man City defender John Stones
Stones was sidelined by injury four times last season - on three occasions with a thigh injury. He managed only 16 starts in all competitions out of the 59 games City played in 2019-20, and started consecutive matches on only four occasions

'Laporte with Stones could still be Pep's plan'

Yes, Stones has made some high-profile mistakes but he has also had long periods where he has been consistent for City.

It wouldn't be a risk for Guardiola to play him in their first game of the season against Wolves and, once he gets in the team, he could stay there.

If Stones is picked on Monday, it won't be with Aymeric Laporte alongside him because the Frenchman in not fully fit after a positive coronavirus test. That would have been the ideal scenario for Stones to come back to. I think the ambition for a long time was for those two to form a strong and regular partnership, and it still could be even now Nathan Ake has joined.

Man City defender Nathan Ake
Dutch international defender Nathan Ake joined City from Bournemouth for £40m in August

While it feels like Laporte has cemented his status as City's number one centre-half, and everyone else knows it, that should help Stones play, not hinder his chances.

When Laporte was out with a long-term injury last season, it felt like whoever played was in a kind of competition to be City's main centre-half in order for one of them to keep their place.

It didn't work because, in those two positions, it doesn't really matter who the best individual is. It is far more important to be part of an effective unit together.

For whatever reason, Guardiola seemed to prefer other combinations including Fernandinho, Nicolas Otamendi and Eric Garcia to anything involving Stones.

Man City defenders John Stones and Aymeric Laporte
Injuries to both players meant Stones and Laporte started only one game together last season. In 2018-19 they played 24 games as partners at the back

It is different now Laporte is back in the picture. Once he is back, it will be whoever plays well with him that decides who gets the other slot, and we have seen before that Stones can do that.

Then you consider Garcia and Otamendi's futures are unclear, Fernandinho's best position is central midfield and I think Ake might play more games at left-back than people anticipate.

So Stones' situation is not as bleak as it looks. Even if City get Kalidou Koulibaly from Napoli then the door would not be closed to him.

You would not say no to Koulibaly but we don't know how he would fit into the Premier League, City's style of play or alongside Laporte. With an in-form Stones, all of that already works.

'England advice did not help my Three Lions future'

Joleon Lescott
Lescott won two Premier League titles with City in 2012 and 2014, and made 26 appearances for England between 2007 and 2013

I am expecting Stones to get enough games for City which is why I think he should stay before next summer's European Championship, but I could understand if he was unsure because I have been in a similar position myself.

During the 2012-13 campaign, I was in and out of the City team and I didn't want the same to happen with England too.

City had just won the Premier League with me as a regular at the back and I had played every game at Euro 2012, then started the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Roy Hodgson's side.

But Roberto Mancini had brought in Matija Nastasic over the summer, and his arrival meant I had been starting far fewer matches at club level.

What I wanted to know is the same as what Stones is probably thinking now - would it be best for my England career to leave City and play more games, or stay in an environment where the standard and the stakes are higher, at a club pushing for major trophies?

I didn't know whether to have that conversation with Roy so I went to his assistant, Gary Neville, to ask him. He was closer to the players at that time - a lot of us had played with him and I knew him pretty well.

Gary told me to stay, that my England chances would be better if I was at City. What he said made sense, so I was happy to do it - but it didn't work out the way I was told it would.

I stayed in the squads, but I didn't get any game time. At the end of that season, we had friendlies against the Republic of Ireland and Brazil and I was the only outfield player not to get any minutes.

I remember thinking 'What's the point? Why have you told me this is the best thing I can do, and then not supported me when I followed your advice?'

John Stones
Stones has won 39 England caps since making his senior debut in 2014. His last appearance came in the 7-0 win over Montenegro in November 2019 - he was not included in Gareth Southgate's squad for their games against Iceland and Denmark in September

Stones is still England's best ball-playing defender

If I'd been dropped by England because I'd not been performing well enough, I would have accepted that. To me, the fact I was still in the squads but not playing meant something else was the issue.

All I wanted was an honest answer about where I was at. That would probably help Stones out as well, but as I found out plenty of times at club level too, you don't always get that from your manager.

I didn't know it then, but my England career was already over. My aim was to go to the Brazil World Cup and I played in five of the first six qualifiers, but my final England appearance came against Montenegro in March 2013.

That was disappointing for me, but I still don't regret staying at City - no way, not for one minute.

I don't think Stones would either and it certainly wouldn't mean his time with England is finished. For now, though, he just has to focus on his fitness and getting back in the City team. The rest will follow.

If he is even playing just 20 or 30 games for City this season, and he stays fit, then he will get in Gareth Southgate's squad next summer. I have absolutely no doubt about that.

Yes, his rivals for an England place may play more games, but he is at an elite club and we are not talking about an average player either.

Stones is still England's best ball-playing defender, and he is certainly the most comfortable in possession of any player we have got in that position. All he has to do now is prove it.

Joleon Lescott was speaking to BBC Sport's Chris Bevan.

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