The chances are that most at Manchester City cast their thoughts back to the Champions League final regularly.
A game that took them so near and left them so far, a first in their history that brought them close to their nirvana: you don’t have to be Pep Guardiola, with his penchant for overthinking, or Kevin de Bruyne, wondering what might have been had Antonio Rudiger not rearranged his face, to ponder if it could have gone differently.
John Stones has other reasons to look back to that May night in Porto. It remains the last time he played in a club match. Since then, he has appeared in nine internationals – which could become 11 over the next 10 days – and England’s first major final for 55 years, but no club matches. Since he signed a new, and presumably lucrative, contract in August, City have derived no benefit from his services. Finley Burns, Josh Wilson-Esbrand, Luke Mbete, Conrad Egan-Riley, Romeo Lavia, Ben Knight and James McAtee have played for them. Stones has not.
It is partly the product of circumstances, of England’s summer exploits delaying his return to training, and misfortune, with injuries, with Stones returning hurt from international duty last month. The fixture list helps explain it: a run of Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and then Liverpool scarcely afforded the chance for rotation or to ease anyone back into action.
It reflects on the stellar form of Aymeric Laporte; Mohamed Salah may have spun and slalomed past the French Spaniard (or possibly the Spanish Frenchman) but until his surprise demotion last season and Ruben Dias’ outstanding debut year, Laporte seemed to rank second only to Virgil van Dijk in the pantheon of Premier League centre-backs and his has been an auspicious return to the team. He has dovetailed with Dias, much as Stones did last season.
Which could leave last season’s renaissance man as the odd figure out. In the short time, an October fixture list of Burnley, Brugge and Brighton offers a chance to reintegrate Stones. Guardiola was flexible enough to reshape his pecking order and respond to form last November when Laporte’s poor performance at Tottenham led him to be demoted below Stones. And yet perhaps Laporte and Dias were always his ideal duo: Guardiola’s fondness for a left-footer at the heart of the defence, to open up angles and make passing swifter, is well known.
If City benefited from Stones’ revival last year, after 2019-20 had been perhaps the worst campaign of his senior career, perhaps England did still more. Had Euro 2020 taken place when originally intended, he may not have made the squad. In the autumn of Euro 2020, Gareth Southgate was still fielding three centre-backs; it was only when he was able to reunite Stones and Harry Maguire in spring that he could revert to a duo.
Well as Tyrone Mings did against Croatia and Scotland before Maguire was fit enough to rejoin Stones during Euro 2020, there felt a significant drop-off in quality between the premier centre-backs and their understudies, Mings and Conor Coady, then. Each is an admirable character but younger alternatives have more potential.
Injured then, a bit-part player for Liverpool now, Joe Gomez nevertheless has ample ability, the pace to excel in a high defensive line and many of the attributes Southgate appreciates. Ben White, the late inclusion in the Euros squad, had then played most of his Premier League football in a trio with Brighton; in the last month, he has started to flourish in a four for Arsenal and while he is not in Southgate’s current party, recent displays make him more suitable for the system than he was. He has been leapfrogged by Fikayo Tomori, who has the attributes to mean he does not need the protection of a third centre-back.
It is possible to glimpse a future when Southgate can perm from a quintet of Stones, Maguire, Tomori, White and Gomez. In the meantime, with Maguire sidelined, Stones feels more important for his country than his club.
Perhaps, over the course of the last few years, he has been more a success for Southgate than Guardiola, pivotal for England in their two best tournaments in three decades without always being the City constant. Or maybe he has just become a slow starter: last season ended up the finest of his career but he only played 104 minutes before November before a spectator transformed into a talisman. Yet the Dias-Laporte axis may render a repeat less likely.
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