It was the unlikeliest chapter in the unlikeliest comeback story of the season.
John Stones not only delivered another excellent all-round display at the heart of Manchester City’s defence in the win over Crystal Palace but also scored his first Premier League goal for the club, some four-and-a-half years after joining.
And then, he scored his second. “I would have loved a third,” he admitted in his post-match interviews.
Only two months ago Stones was still on the fringes of Pep Guardiola’s squad, unable to break into the starting line-up outside of an enforced change, but even that was far better than the position he found himself in last season.
Stones started City’s 2-2 draw with Palace at the Etihad last January. It was his last in the league for another six months, one of only twelve he would make all season.
In total, Stones was left out of 24 match day squads. Many of those absences were due to injury but some were not. It is no secret that off-field issues and inconsistent performances led Guardiola to place his trust in others.
“It’s always tough when you’re not playing,” Stones said on Sunday, opening up on his long spell out of favour. “You don’t get a run of games and when you do, you don’t perform to what you can do because maybe you put too much pressure on yourself.
“I just went back to basics and looked at myself first, looked at what I could improve on in every aspect.
“You need to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say: am I doing everything for myself and for the team? I did that, kept working hard, kept the faith, kept grinding away and kept trying to improve.”
Guardiola, meanwhile, is delighted with him. “He is one guy who deserves the best,” he said of Stones. “He struggled a lot but he is a fantastic human being, his parents must be so proud.”
Stones has improved, to the extent where it is difficult to tell when Aymeric Laporte – considered by many to be the best centre-half in the Premier League behind Virgil van Dijk until recently – will make his next league start.
But his return to form is about the team as much as it is about Stones as an individual.
Sunday was the 16th clean sheet that City have kept in 27 games across all competitions this season. That’s just seven off their total for the entirety of last season. Stones has started in nine of them.
The arrival of Ruben Dias – a record signing – has helped.
His natural authority and the ease with which he has adapted to his new surroundings is a significant factor in City’s defensive improvement, having offered the leadership that has been lacking since Vincent Kompany’s departure.
“It’s just clicked,” Stones said of his centre-back partner. “When it happens like that you enjoy your football and I’m definitely enjoying it with him.”
Occasionally, there is the extra protection offered by Rodri and Ilkay Gundogan in midfield too, with Guardiola turning to a 4-2-3-1 formation more often this season. No longer does only one player have to cover as much ground as Fernandinho did during City’s two title-winning campaigns.
The biggest difference, though, might be that City are simply a more conservative side than they used to be, and particularly when out of possession.
In each of the title-winning campaigns, City pressed their opponents more than any other top-flight side when measured by the number of opposition passes allowed per defensive action. Last season, they were second only to Liverpool.
This season, City are only fifth by the same measure. If there is less intensity to their play when out of possession in the opponent’s half, there is more structure and shape when out of possession in their own.
That does not guarantee a solid defence – far from it – but it does help to protect the backline more.
The counter-attacks which undid City on so many occasions last season are no longer an issue and it is more forgiving environment for centre-backs, particularly those who are new to the league or in need of a confidence boost.
Would Stones have been able to resurrect his career in this way with a stretch of regular starts in last season’s City? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, he is playing for a different team this season – one that does not take as many risks, and in doing so has given him the platform to rebuild his career.
Stones has taken that opportunity. His resurgence is a personal triumph and a collective one.
Man City run riot against Palace to go second in Premier League