“I am always reticent to compare players from different eras,” said former Everton manager Howard Kendall in April 2015. “And I’m certainly not one for putting undue pressure on youngsters by likening them to past greats.”
You know how this story goes by now, the unwitting protagonist setting themselves up for the fall. Yet even knowing that the punchline is on the way, Kendall’s still packs a punch: “The more I see of John Stones, the more he reminds me of Franz Beckenbauer.” Add that to the pressure pile.
At some point during this summer, John Stones will move to Manchester City, a year after his Chelsea aspirations were dashed by a club desperate to hold onto all three of their most valuable assets. Everton do not want the move, but cannot play the same card in two consecutive years, unrealistic promises of meeting the player’s immediate aspirations for Champions League football and trophies. Money couldn’t buy you Stones, but now it can and will.
While Everton are holding out for £50m, it seems likely that a deal will eventually be done for a figure around £46m. Stones must make do with becoming the second most expensive English player of all time, and the second most expensive defender in the game’s history. Those wishing to take time out to exhale forcefully can do so now.
The first unusual thing about Stones’ transfer (or, more exactly, the transfer fee) is that Everton are not an elite club and Stones is not yet an elite player. Of the top ten transfer fees in history (€69m+), four involved a superclub buying from another superclub, while five others (Luis Suarez, Gareth Bale, Neymar, Kevin De Bruyne and Gonzalo Higuain) involved players recently named as the best in their respective leagues or continents. The only exception (James Rodriguez) had just won the World Cup Golden Boot.
Stones is different. Not only is he a defensive player (only David Luiz has similarly moved for more than £40m), but he is – even by his own admission – neither at his peak nor in good form. This is a player left on the bench behind Ramiro Funes Mori and Phil Jagielka at the end of last season, and whose only competitive international start at centre-back came against San Marino. Stones has started 68 top-flight matches, and has played 242 minutes of European football.
Nor too could you reasonably say that Stones’ game has improved over the last 12 months. He committed fouls, received yellow cards and missed tackles more often than in 2014/15. In fact, no outfield player in the Premier League made more errors leading to goals last season, hardly the tagline of a £50m man. Roberto Martinez took the blame – and paid the price – for Everton’s defensive uncertainty, but Stones was at least partly culpable. Manchester City are paying an extortionate amount of money for an idea of the player Stones could be.
Yet Stones has always been different. Every coach who has come into contact with the central defender at Barnsley, Everton or England talks of a player not just destined for the top, but destined to do things differently. “This boy’s coming on like nobody else,” David Moyes said in January. “He’s coming on with great quality and great ability on the ball.”
Roberto Martinez claimed a week later that Stones can become “one of the greatest players England has ever seen”. When Henry Winter offered his half-time update from Everton 0-0 Crystal Palace last season, only one thing was on his mind: ‘Scoreless but worth watching just for the sight of the wonderfully composed John Stones gliding upfield with the ball.’
There’s that pressure again, and with Stones it never stops. The compliment drip feed has flowed faster than at any time since Wayne Rooney’s arrival onto the scene in 2003/04. Again, the most interesting aspect of this is that Stones is a central defender.
There is an increasing demand for multi-functional footballers. Strikers must be complete forwards, holding up the ball and bringing others into play as well as finishing chances. Goalkeepers must be sweepers, comfortable receiving and distributing the ball. Full-backs must be auxiliary wingers, overlapping the midfield to offer attacking support before sprinting back to provide cover in defence. The ball-playing central defender is the latest football fashion accessory, the must-have of every superclub.
Like the others on that list, ball-playing centre-backs are nothing new. Virginio Rosetta and Luigi Allemandi pioneered the role in Italy in the 1930s, Wim Rijsbergen and Ruud Krol were the Dutch equivalent in 1974 under Rinus Michels. Rio Ferdinand might have earned plaudits for his composure, but Bobby Moore was just as capable with ball at feet. Daniel Passarella, Paul McGrath, Alan Hansen and Alessandro Nesta; the list could go on.
Importantly, all of those players were excellent defenders too. That’s not to say that Stones isn’t, but his reputation is honed less by the ‘defending’ bit and more by the ‘ball-playing’. Stones’ errors are forgiven, just so long as he’s passing. A central defender’s game has become defined by his ability to step out of defence and distribute a pass to a teammate.
“He brings the ball out of the back with real quality,” says former England captain Terry Butcher. “He hits the most successful passes for a centre-half. We need to let him play. People criticise him whenever he loses the ball at the back, saying that he ‘shouldn’t be doing that’. Instead we should be praising him for having the gumption for trying to do that in the first place.”
That’s a startling stance for a blood, sweat and tears defender like Butcher to take, but epitomises how English football sees Stones. He is exotic, the boy from Barnsley who can play like a Brazilian. Journalists and ex-players across the land have anointed him as John ‘The Future’ Stones. Without getting too hyperbolic, Stones is the evidence for the defence of English football’s coaching system. ‘See, we can still produce ‘em. This is no different to that tiki-tika that Spain play. We just call it “passing”.’
Stones is not just an idea, therefore, but an ideal. He is the prototype for what English central defenders must become.
Yet there is a danger of this Stones carte blanche going too far. ‘Roy Hodgson will give us a glimpse of England ’s future at Wembley tonight,’ wrote John Cross in the Daily Mirror ahead of England’s game against Netherlands in March. Stones promptly got caught on the ball, and England lost. Once ‘ball-playing’ becomes an excuse for basic errors and lapses in concentration, Stones’ game will never develop fully.
The huge surge of goodwill for Stones (both in the media and among England supporters) is indicative of a chronic shortage of English central defenders. Roy Hodgson did not pick three central defenders in his 23-man Euro 2016 squad by design, but through a lack of options. We are talking up the short supply to match the demand.
Of the 134 players to star 25 or more league games in central defence in Europe’s top five leagues last season, only five were English. John Stones, Chris Smalling, Scott Dann, Steve Cook and Joleon Lescott.
If the present is bleak, the future looks no better. An exhaustive list of English players under the age of 23 to start a Premier League game at centre-back last season reads as follows: John Stones, Jamaal Lascelles, Matthew Pennington, Calum Chambers and Reece Oxford. Only the first two of those did so more than once. That is diabolical for a major footballing nation with aspirations of major tournament success.
As Amy Lawrence wrote in this excellent piece, the problem goes right down to grassroots level. Speaking to coaches at academy level and below, Lawrence revealed a picture that many of us suspected: children today just don’t want to be defenders. In a sport where individualism increasingly reigns – certainly in terms of how the game is sold to children – being part of a defence that thwarts an opposition just isn’t cool.
In that sense, Stones is the perfect diversion to a crisis. We can point at him and say ‘See, we can do it. The system can work. We DO have a future.’ Nothing to see here, move along folks.
With that in mind, there is no better manager for Stones’ development than Pep Guardiola, whose desire for ball-playing central defenders led him to play midfielders Javi Martinez, Xabi Alonso, Yaya Toure and Javier Mascherano in central defence. Stones will be trusted to play his natural game, and cherished if he can be successful. The England caps will soon come against better opposition than San Marino.
Yet if Stones thought his mistakes at Everton were being over-analysed, he is in for a shock at City. While Guardiola was able to bed his central defenders in dominant teams in Spain and Germany, he will not get that opportunity in England. Bayern Munich had 66.4% possession and made an average of 723 passes per game in the Bundesliga last season, but City’s average was 55.2% and 539 passes. Stones will face far more scrutiny and pressure on the ball than Guardiola’s central defenders at Pep’s previous two clubs.
“I’d love to create this image of me doing what Rio did but I also want to be known as a great defender who can keep clean sheets,” said Stones in June 2015. “As a defender you want to keep the ball out of the net first and foremost. If that means doing it ‘ugly’, that’s what it has to take: throwing your body on the line is the biggest part for a defender.”
Therein lies the issue. Stones talks the talk but does not yet walk the walk. He is a defender of style without solidity. The compliments can keep coming, but they mean little without consistency.
This is therefore a deal that must work for all parties. Manchester City need Stones to succeed after the significant outlay on Nicolas Otamendi, Eliaquim Mangala, Matija Nastasic and Stefan Savic in the last five years alone. Stones needs it to work to avoid becoming just another name on the list of English Bright Young Things who failed to struggled to justify the hype. Jack Rodwell might be able to offer advice on that front.
Most of all, English football needs it to work. Managers, ex-players and media have long clung on to Stones as the light at the end of a dark central defensive tunnel. It is in our own interests for Stones’ reputation to be high, in our own interests to praise the passing and overlook the mistakes because, without him, there is an empty drawer. We’re about to truly discover whether the future of England’s central defence can be carved in Stones.