John Stones recovers from tough start to star for Manchester City
One of the success stories of Manchester City's season so far has been the transformation in centre-back John Stones. After a difficult first campaign at the Etihad, the England international has settled into becoming the player the club thought they were getting when they spent £47.5m to make him the second-most expensive defender ever in the summer of 2016.
With that fee, it's natural the spotlight would be on him. For his first few matches, Stones seemed like he'd slotted straight into the team. He looked assured on the ball, was confident in himself and looked like he was enjoying his role as the poster-boy for Pep Guardiola's style of defending.
However, as autumn turned to winter and as Claudio Bravo's uneasy start to life in Manchester began to take shape, the honeymoon period was quickly over. The defence was always on the verge of falling apart, with the goalkeeper letting in simple shots and the players ahead of him looking all at sea with the manager's tactics.
In heavy defeats to Leicester (4-2 at the King Power) and Everton (4-0 at Goodison Park), Stones made mistakes and looked out of his depth. It was in the aftermath of those matches in particular the centre-back was criticised for overcomplicating the position and failing to clear danger before anything else.
Roll forward 12 months and nothing has changed for Stones in that regard. He still takes risks that many would deem unnecessary, but now with teammates around him who understand their jobs better, the risks are paying off. Instead of taking a touch to control and then looking up to find no options on at all, the centre-back has three or four passes that he can safely make -- even with opposition attackers attempting to swarm the final third.
In fact, many still (wrongly) hold the belief City are there for the taking if any team should have the bottle to put them under pressure. When they leaked goals for fun last season that may have been true. But with a far sturdier goalkeeper sweeping up behind a much-improved defence, that idea couldn't be more wrong this term.
The partnership that's formed between Stones and Nicolas Otamendi has been phenomenal in the weeks since Vincent Kompany was injured on international duty. In the past, the Belgian's absence would have caused chaos -- it has done for the three years since he was regularly available -- but fans haven't batted an eyelid in the last month-and-a-half.
At 23, Stones has stepped up to become the leader in City's backline. Despite his relative inexperience, the England defender has orchestrated what's become the team's foundation this season. Not only has he been organising the back four, he's been leading by example.
He's quietly become one of the best tacklers at the club. A number of times already this season he's been in a one-on-one situation with an attacker, isolated as an opponent decides to run at him and give him a problem, only to stand his ground and time his challenge perfectly to win the ball. He usually stands up, keeps possession and passes it to a teammate afterwards, too.
In Otamendi, he has a partner that has complemented him. The pair have developed an understanding that's not been there in City's defence since the days of Joleon Lescott playing alongside Kompany; as one steps forward to attack the ball, the other drops and covers.
It goes further. As one picks up possession, the other gets himself into a position to receive the ball -- and with Fernandinho and the two full-backs doing the same, there's always an option for a short pass along the ground, even under pressure.
As odd as it may seem, that's one of the reasons why City's goals have been so free-flowing this campaign. The team has been able to create such high-quality chances that they've been finding the net with ease, and it's all built on the foundation of keeping the ball moving at the back.
It begins the process of dragging opponents out of position earlier and helps to create the three-on-two or four-on-three breakaways that have been a big feature of City's matches. With Stones & Co. passing their way out of trouble, there are more gaps for the offensive players to exploit.
After an international break where Stones has been getting the plaudits in two fairly defensive England performances, it should be noted his improvement has been a big factor in his club's record-breaking start to 2017-18. Up to this point, he's not had the recognition he's deserved, with many still believing him to be the liability he was painted as in the months following his transfer to City.
The fans have watched the defender grow into one of the club's most important players. It's only the neutrals who think this bout of good form has come out of nowhere.
David Mooney is ESPN FC's Manchester City blogger. Twitter: @DavidMooney