Pep Guardiola conceded persistent injuries have hit John Stones’ confidence as the centre-back enters a potentially crucial few weeks in his Manchester City career.
Stones joined City from Everton for £47.5million in 2016, with the ball-playing centre-back seen then as pivotal in terms of Guardiola implementing his trademark playing style at the Etihad Stadium.
However, the 26-year-old has been confined to the margins this season by frequent injury niggles, registering only 10 Premier League starts and making his sole Champions League appearance from the bench.
When he has appeared, Stones has struggled for his best form, something he will hope to remedy against Newcastle Untied on Wednesday after Guardiola confirmed he will start – a first outing since an ankle problem sidelined the England international before the Premier League restart.
“The quality of John is there, I never doubted for one second,” Guardiola said. “It’s just when you don’t play, injured again, rotated, injured again – of course that [a lack of confidence] happens.
“The players are good when they are in a routine, they’re confident. Even the top players need minutes, playing being fit or being injured. This is what happened with John in this period.
“Now it’s the moment to play for himself, focus on what he has to do. What John is, we know it. We know the quality and the perspective and everything is there.”
Guardiola’s latest restatement of his belief in Stones’ abilities comes amid City being linked to centre-back reinforcements, with Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly thought to be a prime target.
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— Manchester City (@ManCity) July 4, 2020
The City boss once said that Stones would remain at the club as long as he did, but that picture seems nowhere near as clear as it once did.
Even when he was available earlier in the season, while Aymeric Laporte was rehabilitating from a cruciate knee ligament injury, Guardiola frequently overlooked Stones in favour of redeployed midfield veteran Fernandinho and the accident-prone Nicolas Otamendi.
Reports of a move to Arsenal or a return to Everton have surfaced in recent weeks, with the appeal of a fresh start for Stones not hard to identify.
“I said many times, I’m more than delighted with John Stones. As a person, as a professional, everything,” Guardiola restated, before sounding a more pragmatic tone.
“What I want is the best for him. At the end of the season we are going to speak about what is going to happen, because sometimes my wishes are not the wishes of the player.
“I am honest with them and at the moment that we feel we have to change, we are going to tell them. John is a young player, always we want the consistency to train regularly.
“Some players can play every three days for 11 days. Other players struggle more to be fit. What we have to do is find the key to be able to train and play every three days. This is what we want.”
The latest obstacle to any potential Stones resurgence is the form of teenage defender Eric Garcia, who started alongside Laporte for clean-sheet victories against Arsenal and Liverpool and the 1-0 loss at Southampton last time out.
What a win tonight! Great job from all the boys we keep going now pic.twitter.com/qxZgys0Tcu
— Eric Garcia Martret (@ericgm3) July 2, 2020
“They are two guys, especially Eric, who do not make mistakes,” Guardiola added, in a claim not easily applied to Stones, for all his talents.
“Again, against Southampton he doesn’t make one mistake defensively. This is what we want.
“I saw Eric and Ayme incredibly well together against Arsenal and in the other games. I want to give more minutes to them to play together.”
Laporte’s knee injury, suffered during a 4-0 win over Brighton and Hove Albion last August, has been cited as a major factor in City’s title defence falling apart.
The man himself, however, is not so sure.
“They have to say that if they think that, but I don’t think that,” Laporte said.
“When I am on the pitch I try to do my best. If I can give us more chances to be on top of the league then that is better for me and the team too.”
In a sentiment Stones would surely echo, Laporte added: “Hopefully in the next year I will be there all season and enjoy playing many games.”