“Another outstanding performance,” said Pep Guardiola of his Manchester City centre-back. “He is playing four, five, six games in a row, which is something he has struggled with. He is so intelligent and clever. He reads the game incredibly well. He was outstanding.”
It was Ruben Dias, City’s most recent big-money acquisition, who was named man of the match in the Carabao Cup semi-final win over Manchester United at Old Trafford but it was one of Guardiola’s first signings for the club whom he was praising afterwards.
John Stones looked set for the exit but the turnaround has been spectacular. Ten starts this season have brought nine wins and a goalless draw. Here, he even scored the breakthrough goal on an emotional night following the passing of club legend Colin Bell.
For Stones, who dedicated the victory to Bell during his post-match interview, this was his first City goal for 1162 days, his first in this competition since scoring for Barnsley against Rochdale nine years ago. That little statistic alone illustrates just how long he has been around – how long many have been waiting for him to fulfil his talent.
“There was a time when you felt he could not get through a game or two without a mistake, certainly in big games,” said Gary Neville on co-commentary. “It was just that concentration.”
But something seems to have clicked. This was another performance without a blemish. As well as the goal, there was the passage of play just after the hour when he sauntered over to put a stop to Paul Pogba’s run, before carrying the ball away and starting an attack.
No Manchester City player won possession of the ball more times. No Manchester City player surrendered possession of the ball less.
There was one nervy moment early on when the ball ricocheted off him and into the net but the offside flag spared him and he oozed confidence from that point onwards.
Stones, now 26, is playing with maturity and class.
“It just shows his character,” Micah Richards told Sky Sports. “He has been absolutely outstanding since he came back. When you are going through a difficult period in your career and you think your days are over, it is hard. I have been there myself.
“Him and Dias ran the show at the back and I am just happy for him because it is difficult when you have so much money at Manchester City. They can go and buy another defender just like that. It shows his character and his willingness to show everyone what he can do.”
The partnership between the two is a little unexpected. Aymeric Laporte was seen as the centre-back who would benefit from the arrival of the Portuguese. Instead, it is Stones who is thriving thanks to the leadership qualities that are so apparent in Dias’ game.
“These two have created a formidable partnership,” added Richards. “They seem to be reading everything, getting into position, organising. City just seem louder. It seemed like they wanted it more than United. I am happy for John Stones but for Dias to come into this team and perform at this sort of level consistently it is just absolutely amazing.”
Dias and Stones have now kept seven clean sheets in eight games together. The only reason their record is not perfect is because of the late consolation goal by Callum Hudson-Odoi in the emphatic win over Chelsea last time out in the Premier League.
City have looked shaky at times this season but not when Stones has been there. He missed the 5-2 defeat to Leicester and the 2-0 reverse at Tottenham. The player once deemed risky has become reliable and his re-emergence could be a huge factor in the title race.
Stones retains that ability to help City build from the back. In fact, he boasts the best passing accuracy of any player in the Premier League. Next on the list is Dias. The quality of their distribution coupled with their defending means Guardiola has a platform again.
The player himself will not be getting carried away just yet.
“I am just working hard trying to play as many games as I can and play as well as I can when I am on the pitch, give everything for the team and everything for myself,” he told Sky Sports.
“Staying true to myself and staying true to what I can do and what I can improve on and trying to help. Playing in these big games is something I thrive off and the team thrive off it. I am just trying to improve as much as I can and play well.”