John Stones embraces 'Barnsley Beckenbauer' role after fearing he was on the way out of Manchester City

Pep Guardiola and John Stones after the FA Cup final - Diet, sleep and magnesium: what John Stones changed to become City's Barnsley Beckenbauer - Reuters/Carl Recine

August 15, 2020. John Stones probably knew what was coming but, if there had been any lingering doubts about where he stood in Pep Guardiola’s plans, the Manchester City manager’s team selection against Lyon banished them for good. Guardiola had dispensed with his customary 4-3-3 to accommodate an additional central defender but plumped for a 35-year-old veteran midfielder and an inexperienced teenager to partner Aymeric Laporte in a back three.

Rather than the game presenting a way back for Stones, who had started just seven matches since the turn of the year, it seemed the walls were closing in more tightly than ever and a communication mix-up between Fernandinho and Eric Garcia leading to Lyon’s first goal in that shock 3-1 Champions League quarter-final defeat did not improve his mood.

Stones’ City future was in doubt, his career at a crossroads and the challenges were still mounting. Ten days before the Lyon match, City had signed Nathan Ake from Bournemouth and, before too long, Ruben Dias would follow suit. Stones had suddenly dropped to sixth in the pecking order and Guardiola’s declaration, a couple of years earlier, that the England defender would be at City “as long as I’m here” was starting to look a little hollow.

Talk of a transfer was rife. Arsenal and Chelsea were among those circling. The “Barnsley Beckenbauer” was at risk of becoming the Barnsley chop. “It was probably one of the hardest times of my career,” Stones reflected this week.

Fast forward three years and the idea of City’s No. 5 not starting against Inter Milan in the Champions League final in Istanbul on Saturday is unthinkable. But, as Stones prepares to head into a game that could earn him and his City team-mates footballing immortality, the defender does not look back on that dark period glumly but with a sense of quiet satisfaction and pride that he refused to run away from a fight or blame others for his misfortune. If anything, he suggests, it helped turn him into the player he now is, a centre-half turned marauding midfield pivot of frightening consistency central to City’s resurgence, and Treble bid, this season and another of Guardiola’s winning tactical innovations. “It was a big learning curve for me and maybe [made me] who I am today,” he says.

Diet, sleep and magnesium: what John Stones changed to become City's Barnsley Beckenbauer - Getty Images/Chris Brunskill
Diet, sleep and magnesium: what John Stones changed to become City's Barnsley Beckenbauer - Getty Images/Chris Brunskill

Did he not come close to quitting City? “No, I never thought about that,” Stones added. “I think as soon as you accept that - or have that mindset - then you have killed yourself. So, no, I always wanted to stay. I have stayed - and I absolutely love it.

“I wanted to prove myself. I didn’t say to anyone: ‘It was because I want to prove to you [I can do it]’. In anything, I think you have to prove to yourself first and foremost that you deserve to be here, that you are good enough to be here and show what you bring to the team. Everyone is so unique at City and I feel that’s why we’ve been so successful.”

Stones ponders for a moment when asked if all that hard sweat and tears makes the position he now finds himself in all the sweeter. “I don’t really think about it but probably, yeah,” he says. “For me personally, if hopefully I can look back after Saturday with a winner’s medal, yeah, it will be super sweet I suppose. But ask me after that.”

Injuries and a messy split from his former partner Millie Savage had contributed to Stones’s struggles on the pitch as his form and confidence nosedived but he did not sulk or feel sorry for himself. Instead, he set about rebuilding himself physically and mentally. Raheem Sterling, his England and former City team-mate, recalls Stones “training like an animal” in the gym as he sought to improve his core strength through sessions dedicated to improving his overall movement and flexibility and overcoming the persistent muscle injuries that had been so obstructive. His post-match recovery programme was overhauled. Sleep and lifestyle patterns tweaked. City’s nutritionists and sports science experts reviewed his diet, right down to analysing his magnesium and iron levels and establishing what his muscles needed to sustain playing every three days. No stone was left unturned.

Within three months of that Lyon game, he was back in the starting XI and soon to be playing some of the best football of his career.

“I went back to firstly looking at myself, being super critical of myself and what I could do better on the football pitch, and then looking into every fine detail: food, what food, training, what training, what extras,” Stones explained.

“It came down to doing stuff here [at the club] and then going home and doing work, even late at night, or straight after the training. All these kinds of specific things, finding these small margins and putting them all together to kind of break where I was at [at the time].

“I don’t think it was just that [Lyon] game [that hurt]. It’s any game you don’t play, or feel maybe that you should be playing. But I really do try and put a positive spin on that and use it to motivate me.”

Having turned 29 a couple of weeks ago, Stones is at the peak of his powers and revelling in his double defensive/midfield role that, he admits, is revealing attributes he did not know he had, not least the attacking off ball runs into space that have helped to bring an added dimension to City’s play.

“People have always said, to be fair, from a young age that they can see me playing in midfield,” he says. “I think I did and still do love playing as a centre-half but I’ve absolutely loved this role as well. I think I have shown myself that I’m able to do it.

“Maybe I’m showing some attributes that I didn’t know I had but the manager has seen [something] in me and, ultimately, I’m just trying to show what I can do in there and help the team win with my attributes.”

Lyon feels a very long time ago indeed.