This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
Had Euro 2020 taken place in the year that still figures in its title then John Stones would have got no closer to the tournament than watching it on TV. Harsh, but unquestionably true. It underlines the extent of the defender’s rejuvenation at Manchester City that, a year on, he is central to Gareth Southgate’s plans for England once again.
Stones enters the European Championship finals as a Premier League champion and highly likely to start, especially in light of Harry Maguire’s injury problems, when England open their campaign against Croatia on 13 June – just as he did at the 2018 World Cup, when England’s interest was ended in the semi-finals by the same opponents. It sounds seamless, and the continuation of a consistent career at the highest level. It has been anything but for the 26-year-old. The intervening years have been turbulent on and off the pitch. The return of the confident, ball-playing and intelligent central defender last season was an unexpected but crucial bonus for Pep Guardiola and City. Southgate undoubtedly feels the same.
“It’s a huge plus for us,” the England manager said when ending Stones’ international exile in March. “For a period we weren’t sure if he would recapture that form. When you invest that much time and as many caps in players like that and he disappears, it is a huge disappointment. John deserves huge credit for turning that around.”
It is worth rewinding to last summer to appreciate how far the former Barnsley and Everton defender had fallen, and how well he has fought back. Twelve months ago the only contact between Southgate and a player widely regarded as England’s most stylish defender since Rio Ferdinand was the occasional text message explaining his omission from the latest squad. Stones’ decline had been glimpsed with two costly mistakes in the Nations League semi-final defeat by the Netherlands in June 2019. The European Championship qualifier against Montenegro in November of that year would be his last international appearance for 16 months.
Stones started 16 Premier League games for City as their hopes of a third successive Premier League title were shattered by Liverpool in 2019-20. It was the lowest tally of his top-flight career. Persistent injuries accounted for the drop-off, in both appearances and form, but lurid tabloid headlines fuelled Guardiola’s concerns about the defender’s private life too. The lowest point came in City’s Champions League quarter-final against Lyon in August. Guardiola opted for a three-man central defence in Lisbon and Stones was not among them. Fernandinho, a central midfielder, the inexperienced Eric García and Aymeric Laporte were chosen ahead of the England international, who was an unused substitute in City’s 3-1 defeat. The club responded to a disappointing season, in which defensive disruption had been a major factor, by signing Nathan Aké from relegated Bournemouth for £41m and Portugal international Rúben Dias from Benfica for £61m. Stones’ future at City, where he had one year remaining on his contract, looked bleak.
Four years earlier Guardiola had told the City hierarchy, during a meeting at his home in Germany when preparing to leave Bayern Munich for the Premier League, to make the young Everton defender a priority signing for their new era together. At the start of this season the pair sat together in Manchester to discuss a career that was at a crossroads. “I told him I was going to fight and not give up on anything,” Stones recalled of the conversation with his manager. “That’s not something that is in me, laying down when there’s some sort of adversity.”
Stones hit the gym harder than ever before, working on his core strength, flexibility and recovery programme to overcome the injury problems that had suddenly limited his contribution. He tweaked his diet following consultations with the nutritionists and sports scientists at City. One positive he took from being out of the team was having more training sessions to fine-tune his game to Guardiola’s demands, while first-choice players concentrated on recovery sessions in-between their punishing fixture schedule. The effort ultimately paid rich dividends.
It was not until 25 November that Stones and Dias started alongside each other, keeping a clean sheet in a Champions League group stage win away at Olympiakos. Their immediate rapport proved a turning point in City’s and Stones’ fortunes. The defender helped preserve another 15 clean sheets in his next 19 appearances as Guardiola’s side propelled themselves to the Premier League summit and, ultimately, a third league title in four seasons. It arrived with the best defensive record in the division.
There have been occasional lapses from Stones along the way, with England as well as with City, but the resilience he displayed in that heart-to-heart with Guardiola has carried into impressive reactions on the pitch. There is a renewed confidence about Stones on the ball and composure off it. A new contract is in the pipeline at City and a place back in the heart of the England defence, not in front of the TV, beckons at the Euros. A year is a very long time in football.
Andy Hunter writes for the Guardian.
Follow him on Twitter @AHunterGuardian.
For a tactical guide on England click here.