Ask any Premier League player whether they were content to have started just six matches at the 24-game mark of a season, and you’d likely receive the same, frustrated response.
It’s a scenario familiar to John Stones who, when compared to Manchester City’s senior group of defenders, has the fewest league minutes under his belt this season.
What sets Stones apart, however, is his refusal to peddle that predictable narrative. Instead, positivity pours out of the 27-year-old, positivity regarding the opportunity at his fingertips, coupled with optimism that, when called upon, he will be ready to seize his moment in City’s title defence – and beyond – when it comes.
“I’m enjoying it more than ever,” Stones exclusively told Sky Sports. “Everyone wants to play every game, but with our schedule and number of games in a season, I don’t think it is physically possible.
“Would I like to play more? Of course, every player in our dressing room would say the same. I’m always there fighting to play every game and be fit and ready when called upon.
“I had some little injuries and some other stuff I’ve had going on, but I’ve been ready and there for the team. Like last season, when I’ve come in, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and that is how our team works sometimes. Everyone is rotated and the manager uses us in whatever way he thinks we can win that game.”
The egos of footballers can be delicate things. Unparalleled highs can be replaced instantly with spells on the sidelines, doubts over one’s suitability or future at a club, such is the fickle nature of the game.
Given his sporadic Premier League appearances this season, and his inability to dislodge City’s preferred centre-back partnership of Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte, Stones would be forgiven if his confidence had taken a knock and yet he boasts a 100 per cent record for league clean sheets from the six games he’s started this campaign.
Such an outcome is indicative of the culture Pep Guardiola continues to cultivate at the Etihad Stadium, one where every player is reminded of their value, not for the purposes of massaging egos but for the eventuality it will be needed when called upon.
“I’ve been with the manager and a lot of the boys for all of my time at City, and we have a great understanding between each other – players and staff,” Stones added.
“We all know how much we are valued here, and what we can bring to the team when we are playing and when we are not playing.
“It’s definitely a collective thing, the manager always reiterates that everyone is going to play and have a massive role, that is what it takes to win big titles and keep reproducing that year in, year out.”
For the first time since Crystal Palace stunned the champions in October, Guardiola’s powers of persuasion were needed this week as the Spaniard set about picking the champions up off the ground following Saturday’s dramatic defeat to Tottenham.
While Stones has shied away from airing any frustrations surrounding his struggle for game time, the same cannot be said for his reaction to the manner in which the Spurs defeat was administered.
“We’re upset and frustrated, because we usually set ourselves such a high standard, and to drop points after such a good run of games in all competitions is frustrating for us all,” he added.
“We played unbelievably well. We’ve got to give credit to Tottenham as well and what kind of team they are. I always say that every team in the Premier League has got some sort of flair or winning style they can turn on at any moment, that is why it’s the best league.
“How we played in the game was us as Man City, but sometimes it doesn’t come off. It was a harsh day for us in some respects, we’ve got to learn from that, move forward, see where we went wrong, and try and put those things right.”
City’s first Premier League defeat in 15 games ended a 13-game unbeaten run in all competitions and opened the door to rivals Liverpool, who thrashed Leeds on Wednesday to cut the gap at the top of the table to just three points, breathing life into the title race.
Asked what was the bigger wake-up call – the defeat to Tottenham or the fact Liverpool are in the rear view mirror? – Stones completely dismissed the notion that City even needed one, for the messaging within the camp remains as it always has, shielded from outside influences, focused on delivering silverware.
“We’re the reigning Premier League champions, we’re leading the Premier League right now, we set the bar for ourselves, and we cannot concentrate on anyone but ourselves and how we play,” Stones explained.
“We demand a lot from each other, we’ve got a great winning mentality, a great squad of players, a tight-knit group where everyone knows their roles and responsibilities to go and win a football match, whoever plays.
“Our focus is on winning the Premier League, and every competition we are in. The focus doesn’t change, and our attitude only gets stronger and more motivated.”
Stones concluded: “The race now to the end of the season, the sole focus is on us, what we do, how we affect games, and how many games we need to win, and that comes with the mentality of winning every game until the end of the season.
“We won’t stop fighting, trying to improve, and trying to keep moving in the right direction. That is so important as a team; in the five, six years I’ve been here, we’ve gone forward and tried to improve and that comes with every game – wins, draws, defeats – we’ve got to take lessons from all of it and see where it takes us.”
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