Manchester City, Chapter 6: Stepping Stones to continental glory
As previously established in our journey through the Manchester City evolution, the club's identity is tied to a desire to retain possession and play out from the back.
A vital element of that identity is John Stones. Signed from Everton for £47.5 million (S$85.8 million), the 22-year-old became the most expensive defender in British football history.
Stones is the last of a quartet of first-team players, combined value £163.6m, to talk to FourFourTwo.
I’ve learned the hard way sometimes – every player needs to go through those phases – but it’s really good to play in a passing team
Asked how quickly he made the decision to join Manchester City once he knew of their interest, a smile appears on the centre-back’s face. “Instantly,” he says. “It was something I couldn’t turn down. For anyone in my position, when Pep wants you to join the club, it’s a no-brainer. He’s the best manager in the world and to be given the opportunity to learn from him was massive.
“I watched Pep when he was at Barcelona and Bayern, but now that I’m here working with him it’s even better than I expected. He gets us all on the same page, knowing our jobs and responsibilities when we’re on the pitch.
"For any manager, getting that across to the players is one of the biggest things and he does it well. We all go out there knowing how we want to play and how we should play.”
The young Yorkshireman’s own role is to create what Guardiola calls el efecto mariposa – the butterfly effect. It’s an ethos the City boss learned from Johan Cruyff. “For him, one good pass at the beginning could create absolutely everything,” Guardiola explained recently.
Guardiola believes Stones can provide that pass at the beginning – the pass that starts City’s route towards goal. Renowned for his qualities on the ball, the young defender is relishing the task.
“It’s what I’ve done from 16 years old, when I was at Barnsley,” Stones tells FFT. “I’ve always been encouraged to play out from the back. I’ve learned the hard way sometimes – every player needs to go through those phases – but it’s really good to play in a passing team.
"It’s something that we try to work on: to keep the ball and be patient with it, but to be useful with it, too, and not just keep it for nothing. When you have got the ball, you’re in control.”
Stones has often been described as a player who would perhaps be most suited to playing in La Liga. He says that he is unaware whether there was ever interest from Spanish clubs during his time at Everton and accepts that, in joining a Manchester City side with an inherently Spanish style, he may well have found the perfect solution. “I would have to learn Spanish there!” he jokes.
At the time, the Chelsea situation was difficult. But some things aren’t meant to happen
What he knows for certain is that there was substantial interest from Jose Mourinho in the summer of 2015, when Chelsea made a number of bids for his services, the last of them climbing as high as £38m. Everton rejected each and every one, and while Stones admits that he was disappointed at the time, he believes his move to Manchester City may leave him at a club more befitting his style than Chelsea would have ever been.
“Coming here probably is more suited to my game,” he says. “At the time, the Chelsea situation was difficult. But some things aren’t meant to happen.
"When it didn’t go through, that was it – I couldn’t do anything about it. You can’t dwell on it too much. I didn’t want to do that, either for myself or my teammates at Everton; I wanted to keep playing on for them, for the fans and for the club.
"We weren’t always winning matches at Everton, but that’s when you learn a lot about yourself – when you’re going through those difficult times. I’m just really happy to be here now and enjoying my football.”
Not that he expects everything to be plain sailing. Spurs overcame Manchester City at the start of October by employing an extremely high-energy pressing game designed to prevent Stones & Co. from starting moves from the back.
Celtic had done the same thing a few days previously in a 3-3 Champions League draw with City.
But that won’t deter Pep from his principles. “We take it as a compliment that teams are trying to stop how we’ve been playing,” says Stones. “Even in those games, we wanted to stay true to ourselves and keep playing how we have always played, because to compete against our sort of football you have to run – you can’t press for 90 minutes.
“Unfortunately against Spurs it didn’t come off, but you can’t win every game. What’s important is that when things got tough, we did not divert from what we know about how to play football.
“We will keep trying to break the other team down. Teams are coming at us and pressing us, but I’m sure we will find a way to get through. Everyone here wants to win the Premier League. If we go about it the right way, hopefully we’ll achieve that.”