Is this Everton centre-back the player England have craved?
The post-tournament discussion after major international finals, where England have no doubt underachieved, often revolves around the need to emulate a Spanish or German ‘model’. After the World Cup in 2006, the FA chose to adopt the latter of the aforementioned styles, stripping the youth system to ensure the golden generation of Rooney, Beckham, Owen, Scholes and others were not the last off the production line. In 2010 where the old-guard had become stagnant and the FA appeared to have got it wrong, inspiration came from the Spanish.
The world became hypnotised by the rise of the tiki-taka football that was successful both with Barcelona and the new world champions Spain. The possession-based game with periods of high-speed one and two touch football became something England had to copy. And so they did, unsuccessfully. England would often dominate games, albeit against lowly opposition, where the centre-backs would pass most often and it would regularly be to each other, a bit like watching Manchester United. The stale tactics came to haunt the Three Lions as they slumped out the group stage in Brazil, 2014.
England needed a ball-playing centre-back. Someone who was capable of bringing the ball into the midfield and pick a pass. This player arrived in the 3-0 win over Peru in May 2014. John Stones, immediately named as a standby for the World Cup squad so soon after his first cap, had played just 21 times in the Premier League yet he was an instantaneous hit. His ability on the ball was something the English only saw when Barcelona’s Gerard Pique appeared on their television screen. Over this short initiation into the professional game, Stones had retained a pass accuracy of 90% while creating 4 key chances, 2 more than seasoned international Phil Jagielka had managed all season. It was clear to see this young 20-year-old would be a revelation, if he was educated correctly.
At Everton, it seemed Stones was in the perfect environment. The Toffees were an ever-growing force in the Premier League, using the loan system perfectly to capture the electric Gerard Deulofeu and hit-man Romelu Lukaku. Stones also had Jagielka as a mentor, an experienced pro that was virtually feeding him knowledge. Roberto Martinez also seemed a superb fit. His attacking, creative style that allowed his players to express themselves suited Stones to a tee.
Yet, the talent that he appeared to have in abundance hasn’t been built upon. His second season at Everton, the 2014/15 term, ended with just 2 more appearances than his first. Stones ended with one goal and no assists, not the numbers fans had hoped to see from the country’s best ball-playing centre-back. Mistakes were a common occurrence also, 33% of which led to the opposition scoring. However, Stones had his age as protection. Many argued that the 21-year-old was still learning the game and that, with his playing style, it was always likely that with all the good, there was the bad. Stones was criticised for over-playing, getting caught in possession and not clearing his lines, the typical and beloved way of English defending, ‘if in doubt’ being the phrase to accompany a rash clearance.
Yet, for all his troubles, Stones still had managed to attract the attention of suitors, most keen being Chelsea. The Blues submitted bids around the £50m mark both in the summer window and January but couldn’t force Everton’s hand. This show of defiance and trust in Stones to become a player worth more was surely going to have substantially positive affects on the young man’s confidence, right? Chelsea’s transfer saga has in fact done the exact opposite. Everton hold one of the worst home defences in the league yet John Stones hasn’t been trusted to stop the rut. After partnering Ramiro Funes Mori at the back while Phil Jagielka was injured, it was the Argentinian who kept his place in the team when the captain returned. Stones had to settle for a place on the bench and he’s only played 108 minutes of Premier League football since February 3rd.
It may be argued that Stones mentality has been affected by the transfer saga surrounding him, especially with Everton sat in the bottom half of the table, Stones, like others at the club, may feel he is too good to be at the club. However, the constant criticism when he makes a mistake is an environment no player, certainly young ones, would survive in. Maybe a change of scenery is needed. Maybe a change of country.
A culture, Spain, that appreciate the technical side of football, no matter where on the pitch, may suite Stones better. After all, Barcelona are rumoured to be interested and learning from Pique could make Stones world class. In fact, Pique is the epitome for ‘scenery success’. Failed at Manchester United, the Catalan has been a key stalwart in both Pep Guardiola’s era and the new Luis Enrique venture. This development all came from the apprectation he received in Spain and, no matter how disliked he is for being pro-Catalonia, he is admired for his ability. Stones could be too.
With the Euros upcoming, Stones is no longer a certainty to go. Some have him starting next to Smalling, others don’t even have him on the plane. At this moment in time, he is like mustard; you either love him or hate him. And nothing could epitomise that better than his showing against Holland. Firstly, his slip that left Jansenn one on one with Forster, the England shot-stopper came out on top, to Stones’ fortune. Then his precise pass into the feet of Walcott that allowed the Arsenal man a snapshot before a run that took him past three Holland players before a heavy touch that had him overstretched and potentially injured, luckily he wasn’t.
This hot and cold playing style has fans fuming then suddenly in awe of his ability yet the constant questioning of Stones’ potential will remain if he continues to play in such an unpredictable manner, especially as the bad is more memorable than the good. What is undeniable, however, is that Stones has an excellent footballing brain that, with the right coaching and surroundings, is potentially world class, something of which England have always wanted.
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