Saturday was a good day for John Stones. He was certainly due one…
The Manchester City defender has endured a torrid 2019, with poor form and injuries seeing him sidelined for much of the year. On some of the occasions he has played, like in England’s Nations League campaign, or City’s trip to Norwich, he might wish he hadn’t bothered.
Upon his return from his latest injury, despite being the only fit centre-back Pep Guardiola could find, Stones was still made to watch from the bench while the City boss chose to play a couple of midfielders in the heart of his defence rather than use the specialist he paid almost £50million for in 2016.
But Rodri’s injury left Guardiola with no choice other than to play Stones against Aston Villa. For the former Barnsley and Everton defender, it was only his third start of the season and he had a point to prove. Not that he can be the man to marshal City’s defence; right now, Stones just needs to demonstrate that he’s no handicap to the security of Ederson’s goal.
On Stones’ first start of the campaign at the Etihad, Gareth Southgate was in attendance to check on the centre-back who as recently as the summer was his first-choice partner for Harry Maguire. The England boss watched Stones tread carefully on the way to a clean sheet, with one first-half block a notable highlight of a steady performance in which Villa frontman Wesley was shackled and prevented from getting a shot on target.
A bonus for Stones was to be found in the display of Tyrone Mings at the opposite end. The Villa centre-back auditioned for Stones’ England place during the recent international break and Mings did enough to earn a call-back when Southgate considers his selection for the upcoming qualifiers next month.
But Southgate, a coach particularly discerning over his centre-backs, will still need convincing of Mings. What he saw on Saturday lunchtime is unlikely to have offered much reassurance.
Mings was at fault for City’s opener, not even half a minute after a half-time break during which the message above all else from Dean Smith to his Villans would have been to keep concentration. The evidence within 20 seconds suggested his words had fallen upon deaf ears.
From Ederson’s long drive upfield – a rare clearance under pressure, not one of the City’s keeper’s 80-yard laser-precision drives – Mings was inexplicably beaten in the air by Gabriel Jesus, who not only won the header but was allowed to guide it into Raheem Sterling’s path. With Mings’ partner Bjorn Engels similarly sleepy, Sterling was able to run in on goal before squeezing his shot through Tom Heaton’s legs.
1️⃣9️⃣ seconds after the restart, Sterling strikes!
Great composure as he fires through Heaton's legs to break the deadlock. pic.twitter.com/sQJTHORLIQ
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) October 26, 2019
Centre-backs lose headers – it happens. But when it occurs in those circumstances, questions must be asked.
Mings stands 21 centimetres taller than Jesus and the Villa defender had plenty of time while the ball descended from orbit to assert his authority through his position and physicality. His challenge was too lax and displayed all the characteristics of a player not yet back in the game after a 15-minute breather.
The concern for Mings – and Southgate – is that this is not the first occasion this season when Villa have paid for their centre-back’s mistake. Sterling’s was the fourth goal Villa have conceded that can be traced back to Mings. Against Arsenal, Brighton and Norwich, the 26-year-old has been guilty of a costly lapse in concentration.
Indeed, according to Opta, no player in the Premier League has been guilty of more errors that have led to shots. Since no team has made more errors that have led to shots, it is clearly a wider concern for Smith.
Mings had the crossbar to thank after another mistake late on, when his indecision was pounced upon by Jesus, but the City striker’s lob came back off the crossbar while Mings strained underneath it. It wasn’t Mings’ first visit to his own goal-line. Shortly after City’s opener, he was back there to clear another Jesus effort after Heaton had taken the sting off the shot.
This is the issue with Mings: he always catches the eye. For a centre-back, that is not necessarily a good trait. For every few thundering challenges and brave blocks, there seems to be an error in judgement.
The first part of that equation might not come as a surprise from a defender being schooled by John Terry. But the former Chelsea and England captain has some work to do to iron out the kinks in Mings’ game and mindset if he is to achieve the huge potential he so clearly has.