Manchester City defender John Stones believes he is working with the best manager in the business in Pep Guardiola and one of the first lessons he has learned is the value of a good old-fashioned “Row Z” clearance.
Former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss Guardiola is seen as the perfect mentor for Stones and showed his belief in the 22-year-old centre-back by agreeing to pay Everton £47.5 million for his services in the summer.
Stones is a natural in possession or running the ball out from the back, and looks destined to become a key part of Sam Allardyce’s England.
He has been pencilled in to start ahead of Chris Smalling in Sunday’s opening World Cup qualifier in Slovakia and has the chance to lock down a regular starting place under the new regime.
But he is also a work in progress, having been dropped by Everton in the latter part of last season with concerns over his judgement.
Learning when to play the ball and when to focus on the basics is key to Stones’ development and he is already sensing an improvement.
Asked when he last felt the need to boot the ball into the stands, he only had to look as far back as last weekend’s 3-1 win over West Ham.
“On Sunday I did it quite a few times,” Stones said.
“We can all regroup from putting it in Row Z sometimes. From last season to the start of this season I’m realising when to do it. That’s where I believe I have come on quite a lot as a player.
“I was doing things before and then afterwards I would think, ‘Why have I done that? Why haven’t I just put it out in Row Z?’ Already I can see a difference in my decision-making.
“I just want to keep improving, keep getting games under my belt. That’s why I moved to City and, in my eyes, the best manager to work with in football. Hopefully he will bring me on leaps and bounds.
“I’ve been taking in a lot of information these last few weeks, trying to figure out how to fit in. But you have to keep improving as a player and as a person because you have to move on in life.”
While Stones’ willingness to engage with his shortcomings is admirable, he is equally keen to point out he is not a newcomer to “dirty” jobs of defending.
“At the end of the day I’m a defender, and that’s what I want to be known as,” he said.
“I’m a defender first and foremost, getting the blocks in, getting the headers in that people don’t recognise that I do … the dirty stuff, that every defender should do and should be good at.
“That’s what I’m trying to do and the rest of it is an added bonus, where I can play out, start attacks off. But I’m still learning. I know that.”
If Stones is looking for a kindred spirit as he plots his path from promising talent to world-class performer, he need search no further than England’s recent past.
As a young player at West Ham, Rio Ferdinand’s elegant style earned him many of the same plaudits while his lapses drew similar opprobrium.
He eventually matured into a star performer at Manchester United and has been a vocal champion of Stones, even calling a football phone-in in December to fight his corner.
“I didn’t know about that,” said Stones when informed of Ferdinand’s intervention.
“I’ve met Rio a few times and he has always been passionate about football. To get that backing from him in that respect gives me great confidence. He was a top player and I’m striving to be a top player. I know I’ve got a lot of hard work to get through before I’m winning titles and becoming the player I want to be.
“I’ve met John Terry and Rio a few times now. We just chatted football really and they wished me all the best. We never really went into detail. But it was just nice for me because I’ve watched them since I was a young kid and to be playing them and chatting to them is something that you would not have dreamt as a young kid. It is just nice to be in and around them.”