With City scoring goals at a remarkable rate – 30 in 10 matches across all competitions and 25 in September alone – it would be easy to ignore their new-found solidity at the back.
But in those 10 matches, City have conceded just three, and have already kept clean sheets against the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea, Shakhtar Donetsk and Feyenoord. By Pep Guardiola’s own admission, his side weren’t good enough inside their own box last season, a key reason he felt silverware wasn’t secured. There’s a much stronger feel about City now.
A shining light in the backline has been John Stones, one of only three players to feature in every game this season. At 23, Stones has plenty of time ahead of him, with centre-backs usually hitting their peak at around 30, but there’s been a significant improvement in his performances this season and City are reaping the benefits.
He’s known as a cultured centre-half and the statistics suggest it’s an accurate appraisal. He’s taken 834 touches of the ball and completed a remarkable 716 passes – more than any other player in the City squad – with his passing accuracy standing at 96 per cent. Only Yaya Toure, who has featured in one game, boasts a better rate. In the win over Shakhtar, he completed 101 passes, more than any other player on the pitch, and set the tone for much of City’s best work, which is exactly what Guardiola wants from his defenders.
But it’s perhaps his contribution to keeping clean sheets that best exemplifies his rise. He’s made 10 interceptions, won 35 duels, recovered the ball 44 times and won 8 tackles, all of which a higher than he managed at this stage last season.
There's room for improvement - but there's clear upward curve in motion. "John knows what is the gap and where he has to improve, defending the duels, but he's so young and he is able to achieve," Guardiola said after the 4-0 win away at Feyenoord, a game that saw Stones score two headers.
"When he does, he will become an exceptional central defender."
His best performance of the season came in the recent 1-0 win away at Chelsea, a game in which City completely outplayed the defending champions. Slick passing and movement and intense high pressing were key to the win – but when Chelsea rallied City had to be at their best defensively. Stones delivered unequivocally.
“Defensively, on a personal note, it was maybe one of the best games I’ve played in,” he said afterwards.
“I’m enjoying my football. Just trying to keep improving day in, day out, mentally, physically, tactically, on the training pitch.
“The hunger to keep improving and keep getting to more targets in my game is driving me to become better. Keeping clean sheets has spoken for itself over the last five or six games. I’m enjoying my football.
“Any player that’s had a dip would say the best bit’s when you’re enjoying it and winning always helps as well.”
Much of City's fine early season form has been credited to their attacking play, and rightly so. Scoring 30 goals in 10 games demonstrates the ruthlessness in City ranks. But goals are nothing without solidity at the back, and in John Stones City have one of the fastest-improving defenders in the English top flight.