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Last summer, John Stones became one of the Premier League’s hottest properties as Chelsea tried to tempt him away from Goodison Park with a transfer that would have seen the youngster become England’s most expensive defender ever.
Whilst the Toffees were able to resist those advancements, the very public pursuit instantly propelled the Barnsley-born star into the limelight. The England international had already garnered plenty of praise during his opening two Premier League campaigns, but he was suddenly being touted as a future Three Lions captain.
The links to Chelsea were always going to raise questions as to whether Stones would be the heir to John Terry’s Stamford Bridge thrown. As far as playing styles are concerned, though, the comparisons should be aimed at England’s other great centre back of the last 15 years.
Back in 2002, Manchester United forked out £33.3m to acquire the services of a then 23-year-old Rio Ferdinand. No English defender has transferred for more money before or since that huge deal 14 years ago, but that record could be blown away this summer if the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City resurrect their interest in the Everton centre-back. If Stones does overtake Ferdinand as England’s most expensive defender, it would be a fitting development.
English football boasts a rich history of producing great centre-halves. In the Premier League era alone, fans have revelled the likes of Sol Campbell, Tony Adams, Steve Bruce, John Terry, Ledley King, Gary Pallister et al. All of those players shared incredible physical attributes, tailored perfectly for life in the brutal playground of England’s top flight.
Strength, power, and great leadership qualities are engrained in the DNA of a formidable English central defender. Once in a generation, though, England produces one star that boast the calming qualities of a ball-playing defender that is more commonly seen on the continent. Bobby Moore was one; Ferdinand was another. And, even at this early stage, it’s clear to see Stones is another. For that reason alone, nobody should be surprised by the excitement that follows his every move.
For a 21-year-old, Stones oozes confidence and composure. That self-assurance was epitomised by his calming of the crowd after pulling off a Cruyff turn in his own box against Tottenham, and the England man shows no indication of sacrificing those ball-playing abilities. In many ways, his play is reminiscent of Barcelona’s Gerard Pique and the Everton man’s cultured approach to the game could be a huge asset for club and country.
Since breaking into Roberto Martinez’s first team plans just over two years ago, the youngster’s pass success ratio as hovered around the 90% mark. Perhaps more notably, Stones is particularly eager to get involved. At Everton, Gareth Barry is the only player to boast a higher average of completed passes this season. Despite his tender age, the England defender certainly isn’t one to shirk away from the play.
Like Ferdinand before him, Stones is susceptible to the odd mistake. He will get caught in possession from time to time, but it’s important to remember that he is still a young boy. Forget the seven England caps and 60+ Premier League appearances; Everton’s rising star is still learning the game. With age and maturity, there’s nothing to stop him from finding that right balance of knowing when to play ball and, more importantly, when to play safe.
The vulnerability of playing the centre-back role means that the risks are high, and those errors will often be punished. When employed in an effective manner by a capable footballer, which Stones most certainly is, the rewards are huge. If a defender can take opponents out of the game before starting an attacking move, then his team will naturally enjoy more of the game. Assuming he does seal his big money move to Manchester or London this summer, Stones will be allowed to develop those talents even further.
If he ends up at the Etihad, a Premier League variant of the tiki-taka philosophy could be the perfect outlet for Stones’s obvious talents. Pep Guardiola is always keen to facilitate ball-playing defenders, and may see the Everton man as the perfect player to fill that role for the next decade. Regardless of where his next destination may be, there is no doubt that his attributes on the ball can help him become an England great.
As far as English defenders are concerned, those cultured attributes enlist Stones as the diamond amongst the rough of no-nonsense defensive shields. But before cementing his place as the gem in Roy Hodgson’s crown, Stones must first learn to become a rock.
The ball-playing talents that Stones boasts are a gift that could be the key to be the difference between being a great defender and a world-class one. Nevertheless, the primary role of any central defender is to stop the opposing attackers. If the young Lion is to fulfil his potential, he needs to become impregnable at the heart of defence.
Stones shouldn’t be singled out as the main source of Everton’s defensive problems throughout the Martinez reign. On the other hand, he’s far from blameless and cannot shirk those responsibilities. The exciting talent has been culpable for several goals this season. While that’s part and parcel of earning your stripes at the elite level, one issue stands out as a major worry and must be addressed immediately. At times, the youngster finds himself caught out of position. Whether it’s a lack of concentration, a lack of intensity, or poor reading of the game,finding a solution to this problem has to be top of the agenda.
If those fragilities persist, Stones will fall short of the predicted accomplishments.
Extended time in and around the national setup will help. With no disrespect to Phil Jagielka, Stones will learn a lot more from working with Gary Cahill and other players accustomed to playing at a level being forecast for the rising star. Meanwhile, the experience of a major tournament in France should form another key moment in the defender’s continue development.
Most importantly, Stones needs to be playing Champions League football. A move to Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford might not fulfil those desires next season, but both Chelsea and Manchester United will be back on the biggest stage at some point. Working alongside, and playing against, better players can only accelerate the youngster’s progression.
Spending this season at Goodison Park has allowed the youngster to clock up more playing time and has been equally crucial for pinpointing areas where he needs improvement. Nevertheless, despite not being the finished article, he will have outgrown Everton by this summer, particularly if he performs well at Euro 2016.
Ironically, Ferdinand made the step up from Leeds to Old Trafford just weeks after his first international major tournament appearances (he was in the squad for France ‘98 but didn’t play) and this could be the case for Stones too. It would be slightly misaligned to brand him the ‘next Rio’, but there is no denying that the advanced technical ability hands Stones an opportunity to achieve success without fitting the mould of the archetypal English centre-half.
Despite all the speculation last summer, the player didn’t make a big fuss. Furthermore, when the deal fell flat, he focused his attentions solely on the Everton cause. This attitude, combined with his natural confidence, should serve him extremely well. The manner in which he has bounced back from highly scrutinised blunders has underlined that he won’t be broken by media talk. For a young English talent, that could be the most important asset of all.
Stones isn’t just a ball-playing defender. Contrary to the positional errors and occasional rash challenge, his defensive attributes still stand alongside the Premier League’s best. The Everton defender can tackle and is pretty solid in the air. Those attributes will only evolve alongside his physical growth. With the right tutoring at a top club, he has every chance of ironing out the kinks to become a fearsome defender.
The tools are certainly there. Talks of a bloated £50m valuation will intensify the spotlight, but Stones can cope. Some might say it’s still a year too early for him to quit Goodison Park. However, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. The step up in class could work wonders for the England man’s progression, and he has the role model of Ferdinand to serve as inspiration.
It’s very easy to get over excited about young English stars a little prematurely, but we don’t see centre-halves of this ilk very often on these shores. While there is still a degree of speculation involved, the potential of those cultured technical attributes could be hugely influential to England over the next decade. Ultimately, you don’t get earmarked for a record-breaking transfer at 21 unless there’s some serious talent on offer.
If Stones can complement those raw ingredients by developing the hunger for clean sheets that the likes of Terry and Campbell possessed, then there’s nothing to stop him joining those players on the pedestal of 21st century Three Lions icons.