The Manchester City defender was the only outfield player in Gareth Southgate’s squad to play every minute of England’s seven games – a stark contrast to Euro 2016 when he spent the entire tournament as an unused substitute.
Stones grew in stature as the fulcrum of Southgate’s back three, impressing with his defensive work, his organisational skills, his distribution as well as scoring his first international goals with a headed double against Panama which meant he actually finished the tournament as England’s second highest scorer behind Harry Kane.
But one momentary and crucial lapse allowed Mário Mandzukic to steal the half a yard of space that was all he needed to poach Croatia’s extra-time winner to end England’s hopes in the semi-final.
For Stones, that split second underlined the fine margins between success and failure in international football and why he will scrutinise the DVDs of all of England’s games before returning to club duty.
“I will watch all the games again in my own time,” he said. “What we did at both ends of the pitch – because if you don’t score goals you don’t win games and if you don’t keep clean sheets you don’t win them either. That’s the harsh reality when you play against teams at the very highest level.
“It is always good to self-analyse and be self-critical. That is how I’ve got through so far and improved. You’ve got to be harsh on yourself because it is the only way you are going to get better by studying those situations where you may have fallen short.
“I could have done better in a lot of things. If that headed chance I had against Croatia had been a couple of feet closer. Or if you make a misplaced pass, teams are so good now they invariably punish you. So you study everything little thing.”
The disappointment of Mandzukic’s goal – with England just a few minutes away from a shoot-out to settle who went through to the final – will stay with Stones.
“We had a real chance there,” he said. “We were ahead in the game, they got back to 1-1, then we had another good spell. It was just one moment in the game which changed everything and we were out of the tournament.
“They are a great team, with great players, and we didn’t under-estimate them. We knew their quality. It was always going to take just one goal like that to beat us and that’s what happened.”
Despite the forensic scrutiny on his own game, Stones has emerged from the tournament with greater maturity and an optimistic outlook on England’s future.
He said: “I am self-critical but I don’t want to be too negative about the whole tournament. There are ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ in any field of life. We should be so positive after this experience.
“How we have been is the way forward for England. We will take all the good things out of it. Everyone has enjoyed it. We faced teams who were not easy to play against.
“I’ve really enjoyed it and I’m so happy to have played in every game because it was a difficult tournament for me in France two years ago.
“I’ve enjoyed the challenges of playing in the biggest games. I felt like I’ve expressed myself and tried to bring everything to the table. I can honestly say I gave it my all – I’ve left nothing out on the pitch.
“I feel I’ve improved as a person and a footballer over the last few weeks on the biggest stage in the world. Now it is all about continuing to improve.”