With his Manchester City career on a cliff edge, John Stones showed signs of recapturing his best form alongside debutant Nathan Ake in win at Wolves… but with Pep Guardiola interested in Sevilla’s Jules Kounde, has it come too late?
In the hours before Manchester City arrived at Molineux to open their season, the Sevilla sporting director, Monchi, sent his counterpart a message – and in quite a transparent fashion. Essentially, show us the money for Jules Kounde.
‘There is no agreement with City,’ Monchi said, in remarks you suspect are viewed as unhelpful at the Etihad Stadium. ‘It’s certain that in the last few days we have received interest from one club for Jules. If they come back, we will listen and we will respond.’
Sevilla want upwards of £60million for the young central defender, safe in the knowledge that while his admirers are not desperate, they are not particularly serene either. A partner for Aymeric Laporte is what Pep Guardiola has craved for well over a year now and City know they ought to deliver one.
New £41million arrival Nathan Ake made his debut for Manchester City as they won at Wolves
John Stones, whose future at City has been queried, also started in a show of strength in depth
Kounde does not fit the same profile of another target, Koulidou Koulibaly, a 29-year-old who has experience and extra physicality on his side.
But at 21, he is a young man who excelled during Sevilla’s triumphant Europa League campaign and whose stock has soared since leaving Bordeaux for LaLiga last year. A bright, vibrant defender making his way.
City paid £50m for one of those four years ago, in Guardiola’s first pre-season, when John Stones became the most expensive Englishman ever in his position.
Stones was magnificent in City’s first title win, a force of nature in some matches, and certainly had his moments as they retained it – notably a goal-line, match-winning clearance against Liverpool – but subsequent injuries and a confidence deficit mean his career has been on the cliff edge, becoming ever more apparent each time Gareth Southgate names his England squad.
21-year-old Sevilla defender Jules Kounde remains a target for City after their bid was rejected
Monday night was the first match of real significance that Stones has started since a Manchester derby defeat way back in December, starting in the absence of injured Barcelona target Eric Garcia.
As Sportsmail revealed in July, the 26-year-old is determined to make a fist of this, although time is undoubtedly ticking and with a new addition on his way, Stones really needed a performance of sorts.
It was not spectacular but contained indications that Guardiola can turn to him when required. Silly little insignificant things, like merely cajoling his team-mates, applauding attacking endeavour, and not resembling a frightened rabbit once crossing the halfway line.
Stones went to go and play in areas he relished a few years ago, piercing the lines when invited to start attacks. We have seen very little of any of the above over the last 18 months. He did not look like a man hoping to hide.
Wolves can be an unforgiving place, certainly when Raul Jimenez is breathing down your neck, and City did endure scares after half-time, Stones caught a little high on a couple of occasions and probably not tight enough as Jimenez headed home with 12 minutes left. He will be very annoyed by that.
City boss Pep Guardiola (centre) has plenty of options as he looks to close the gap on Liverpool
Highly-rated Napoli and Senegal star Kalidou Koulibaly is still of interest to Guardiola and City
The highest compliment to new £41m signing Nathan Ake is that he was barely noticeable, and this victory was soundtracked by applause from City’s backroom staff on every occasion Stones completed his job.
They were noisy behind the dugout and there feels as if a real willingness for Stones to recapture his best exists within the club, extending beyond the management. For now, he can only do his basics, and that attitude was mirrored by City generally.
Guardiola was without seven first-team players – including Ilkay Gundogan, who has tested positive for coronavirus – but without looking at the youthful bench, you may not have known it.
That is the sort of depth they hope will help run Liverpool far closer this time.
Wolves have impressed with a relatively small squad but they had little answer to City’s power