The 2022/23 season has been a memorable one for everyone involved with Manchester City, but for John Stones, it has included a test which few saw coming.
A centre-back by trade, Stones ends the campaign in a unique position — quite literally. The 29-year-old has been pushed forward into a holding midfield role by manager Pep Guardiola in the second half of this campaign, demanding more from Stones than ever before.
Stones is expected to take up that role once again, alongside Rodri at the base of City’s fluid midfield, when the Premier League winners head to Turkey for the Champions League final against Inter on Saturday.
For former City centre-back Joleon Lescott, who took Stones’ path of swapping Everton for the Sky Blues seven years earlier, it’s a switch which has unlocked a new side of the defender.
“Not to the level he’s operating at,” Lescott admitted exclusively to 90min when asked if he could have foreseen Stones’ transition into a midfielder. “I think yes, there was an air of ability and confidence that John Stones had that could make you say he could play in midfield, but there’s still a difference between playing in there and just saying someone could play in there.
“Players play with confidence and that’s when you see the best in them, but John Stones has a level of ability that is unique to him. I don’t know if there’s any other centre-back in the Premier League that could play the role the way he plays it, and there are a lot of centre-backs who are very comfortable in possession. I think ‘good on the ball’ and ‘comfortable’ are different things. I was decent on the ball, but being comfortable in midfield, that is a whole different realm. You don’t do that if you’re just ‘confident’, you have to have the ability and put the work in to get to that stage. He’s a special, special talent.”
It was during City’s FA Cup final victory over Manchester United that Lescott really came to terms with the level at which Stones is operating.
“I think he received the ball on the edge of his box and turned between three or four Man Utd players and then ran with it,” Lescott recalled. “It was a simple-enough pass, but that turn, there aren’t many centre-backs I can remember that could do that. [He’s] not doing it to get out of trouble, but doing it because it’s the right thing to do. That’s the difference.”
Stones may not command the same headlines as teammates like Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne, but the defender-cum-midfielder has played an integral role in City’s recent success which Lescott is keen to highlight.
READ MORE BUILD-UP TO MAN CITY VS INTER IN THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL
Few teams have figured out how to counter Stones’ iNFLuence in this new position and Champions League finalists Inter will be the next to try, with their European dreams perhaps dependent on finding a solution.
“Teams will have to combat him soon, because he’s effective,” Lescott stressed. “He’s not in there just making up the numbers. He’s actually having a say on the game and the pace of it, so teams are going to have to address him soon.
“Coming from the back and stepping in, for him to be marked would mean a striker would have to be back, and teams aren’t doing that. On paper, it’s kind of like a free role for him, because he’s not having to be up against a midfielder. If he starts in midfield, you’ve got the midfield up against you and then it’s a different kind of approach.
“At the moment, this style, this unique positioning he has is down to his ability as a centre-back.”
Stones isn’t the only Englishman to have impressed Lescott. The former City defender has been part of England’s Under-21 coaching setup since the summer of 2022, giving him a closer look at two of the club’s brightest young stars, Cole Palmer and Rico Lewis.
“I’ve worked closely with them, more so Cole. Rico was in the last squad so I’m just getting to know him,” Lescott explained.
“Cole is someone that is a really exciting talent with a bright future. If he’s given [the opportunity to play in the final], 100% he’ll take it. This won’t phase him, from what I know of Cole and how well I do know him. He loves Football and he just sees it as a Game of Football. There’s an innocence about his approach to the Game and his love for it.
“If he’s given an opportunity, which he very well might be given because he’s been very exciting and effective, I’m sure he’ll relish it, enjoy it and contribute, most importantly.”
Lescott will be part of BT Sport’s coverage of the final / BT Sport
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