It feels like an age since Manchester City played Chelsea in the Champions League final in Porto. Kai Havertz’s goal three minutes before the break was enough to give Chelsea a 1-0 victory and make them European champions for the second time. That game at the end of May was also the last time John Stones turned out for Manchester City.
Stones enjoyed a renaissance under Pep Guardiola last season, forging a solid centre-back partnership with Rúben Dias as City won the title while conceding just 32 goals in 38 games, the best defensive record in the league. He was rewarded with a five-year deal in early August and must have been expecting to keep his shirt this season. However, it has not worked out that way for the 27-year-old. Stones has played nine times for England – featuring in all seven of their matches at Euro 2020 and in two World Cup qualifiers – since he last played for City.
Stones was given an extended period of leave after his exertions with England during the summer but, even so, he now faces a struggle to reclaim his place. “John arrived late, and after we came back for the second game, he had a problem in his leg, he was injured,” Guardiola said last month, but after playing two of England’s three World Cup qualifiers over the September international break, lasting the full 90 minutes in both, Stones seems to be back to full strength.
Unfortunately for Stones, though, his time out has coincided with Aymeric Laporte’s return to Guardiola’s first-team plans. When City signed Dias from Benfica for £62m last summer, it looked like he would forge a centre-back partnership with Laporte. However, Laporte started just 14 league matches last season and was forced to watch on as Stones and Dias excelled. There were reports over the summer that he might leave the club, either returning to Spain or signing for Spurs as a makeweight in a deal for Harry Kane. Yet, he has played his way back into the team. Nathan Ake was given a chance on the opening weekend of the season but he looked shaky as City were beaten 1-0 by Tottenham, paving the way for Laporte to regain his place.
Laporte has played in City’s last three games and has been excellent. City have won all three of them – beating Norwich 5-0, Arsenal 5-0 and Leicester 1-0. They have not conceded a goal and have only given up 5.3 shots per game, fewer than any other side in the league, while averaging 69.2% possession – more than any other team in the league.
Much of that dominance has been down to the ball-playing capabilities of Laporte, who ranks top in the league for passes per game (102.3) – Dias is second in the league so far with 84 passes per game – and pass success rate (96.7%). Stones has been forced to watch on as his teammate shines alongside Dias, much like Laporte had to do last season.
Stones, of course, is no slouch on the ball. His pass success rate of 93.3% was the best in the Premier League last season but, while Laporte does not put a foot wrong, Guardiola has no reason to break up the partnership developing between his two centre-backs. The City manager has been reluctant to tinker with his team this season; he has put out the same starting XI for their last three league games. For a manager who went 172 matches without naming an unchanged team at City, that is an unusual level of consistency.
City have dominated Norwich, Arsenal and Leicester in those three games, scoring 11 goals and conceding none. With Laporte solidifying his partnership with Dias, teams will struggle to break City down. Laporte was dropped last season after a disappointing display against Spurs but he has shown no signs that a dip in form is on the horizon. For Stones, that means dropping back to the bench to watch on as the City machine clicks into gear.