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England defender John Stones: 'I'm wiser, more experienced, a better player'

John Stones speaks to EURO2020.com about team-mate Phil Foden, overcoming career troughs and dealing with pressure.

England defender John Stones, primed for action
England defender John Stones, primed for action UEFA via Getty Images

Raw. That was the word John Stones summoned when discussing Phil Foden, his Manchester City and England team-mate, this week. "I mean raw in the sense that he seems like he's just come off the street and he is playing," Stones told EURO2020.com.

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Raw as in, you don't think about your game. You just play. Type Stones and Panenka into YouTube and you'll see a penalty kick taken by Stones in his raw years, for Everton against Juventus. The lightness of youth.

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That was eight years ago. Asked if he would repeat that Panenka in a EURO shoot-out, there was a laugh which said no. It's a different Stones today, a player who has had to think deeply about his game after his loss of form with Manchester City meant a period of 16 months out of the England squad until his return in March.

Being on the outside looking in was not easy. "I watched the games and I did find it difficult," said the 27-year-old. "When you're involved in something but you're not there to help and be in that culture, that environment, it's difficult.

"You look at yourself quite a lot and realise what's going on and what you're missing out on. I've said it a lot of times but I definitely didn't or don't take anything for granted any more."

Perhaps his toughest day in an English shirt came prior to that period of absence. It was his last tournament match for his country, the 2019 UEFA Nations League semi-final loss to the Netherlands, when he was caught in possession for the second Dutch goal.

In such moments he chooses to "go through it, watch it all, assess it, through gritted teeth" and he has absorbed the lessons and bounced back well enough this season to earn a place in the PFA Premier League team of the year alongside fellow City centre-back Rúben Dias. "I do think I came back wiser, more experienced, and maybe a better player," he said.

Meet the teams: England

England will need his wisdom and experience against Croatia when, in the expected absence of Harry Maguire – training again as he recovers from his ankle-ligament injury suffered on 9 May – Stones will be the squad's senior centre-half.

Of the others, Tyrone Mings, Conor Coady and Ben White have 17 caps between them. Stones has partnered only one of them before – when playing with Coady against San Marino in March.

There are suggestions that Southgate could revert to a back three, but it's a guessing game – inevitable when, as The Times noted on Friday, the manager has not selected the same back line in any match this term. Yet, as Stones observed, he is "so used to chopping and changing and trying new things in training" with his club. And the same applies with England. "If the manager wants a three or a four, we can adapt quite quickly really and the quality of the players makes it a lot easier to do that."

And if the younger ones do need guidance, the older, wiser, not-so-raw Stones is ready to provide it. "You know, there's a lot of talent, but a lot of the lads maybe haven't experienced high pressure. [When] a lot is riding on big games and they haven't experienced that as much as maybe the rest of us have, to be able to guide them through it and let them go and express themselves will be something that I'm definitely looking forward to."