John Stones spent his last trip to a major tournament with England carrying a cuddly lion called Leo, but he is now ready to outsmart the World Cup wild men.
The central defender did not play a single minute of England’s dismal Euro 2016 campaign, but did have to carry around the team mascot after losing a training ground game.
Stones has gone from being treated as a spare part by Roy Hodgson in France to being the lynchpin of Gareth Southgate’s three-man defence in Russia.
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He was one of England’s best players in the opening Group G game against Tunisia, in which statistics showed he won seven of his nine personal duels, and is now preparing to face Panama.
Southgate has warned his players about the physical approach of Panama, who had five players booked against Belgium, but Stones believes his brain will be just as important as his beefed-up physique.
“If you put me against Andy Carroll, I’m never going to beat him in a fight, so I’ve got to use my brain,” said 24-year-old Stones. “Players that want to be in a physical combat, you’ve not got to give them that.
“I remember playing against [Diego] Costa and he wants to wind you up and kinda get into your head and a few times I’ve played against players like that, you’ve got to beat them mentally and not play them at their own game.
“And that’s the thing I have learned over the years. Obviously all the gym work, getting older and all the genetics and all the things that come together, it takes time. All I can do is keep working hard in the gym, review my games and try to improve in as many respects as I can.
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“I’ve never thought I got bullied or pushed off the ball. It just takes time to realise what situations I get put in and how to adapt to those and be more aggressive. I’ve had to analyse my game from a very self-critical point of view and be harsh on myself when things don’t go well and make sure I improve in future instances.”
“We’re going to cause them as many threats as we can using our own style of play. That’s credit to the manager and the players we have got because a lot of the players at their clubs never change their style of play in difficult situations.
“We’ve got to show respect to the opposition and obviously know what they are capable of, and what they can do to hurt us. We’ve been doing that in training and will do up until the game."
A series of small injuries restricted Stones to just 163 minutes of action for City over the last three months, but, during the same period, he has played 408 minutes for England.
“I got a lot of little injuries and things at City that weren’t made public, and that’s why I wasn’t in the squad so much for a while,” said Stones. “But I spoke to Gareth during that time.
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“He’s shown a lot of faith in me. I can’t express enough how thankful I am for that. Sometimes you’re in difficult spots as players where form’s not right and he’s got a difficult decision to make.
He knows us well enough by now, our characters, it’s down to him. I think if I stay true to myself and make sure I put in the work and come to England if selected and fight for a spot, then I’ve done all I can.
“And if I don’t get selected at any time, me and Gareth will have that conversation and he’ll be honest with me because he’s that type of person.”
Stones had high praise for two of his City team-mates, one of whom he is playing next to for England and one of whom he could face in the final Group G game against Belgium.
Kyle Walker is playing next to Stones on the right side of England’s back three and Stones said: “How he slotted in has been brilliant. I know that he loves to get up and down the pitch, and to be kind of held back and not bombing up and down making crosses, he’s done better than me in my opinion anyway.
I think he’s world class. What he brings, not only to the team, but me personally has been a massive, massive help. On and off the pitch, he’s just so calm and he’s always got the right advice for whatever situation we’re in.”
Vincent Kompany has also been a big help to Stones, who said: “He’s another class act. I remember Vinnie was injured in my first season and this season, obviously, but he got some clips that he wanted to help me out with.
“We sat down together, just the two of us, and he wanted to give his advice and opinion on these actions. For someone to do that and try to help me as a young player, it says a lot about the person. I look up to him as a captain and a friend because of the things he has done for me in the last two years.”