Since joining Manchester City, John Stones has hardly set the world on fire. Poor performances in several games this season have led to questions regarding whether the 22 year old defender has what it takes to succeed at the club. But is Stones really at fault, or does City manager, Pep Guardiola, have to take responsibility for his player’s early season struggles?
John Stones has had a poor start to the season. Anyone who fails to recognise this is really very much in denial. Since joining Manchester City for a staggering £50 million in the summer, the ex-Evertonian has been error prone, naive, and a genuine defensive liability.
Much has been expected of Stones. Ever since he left Barnsley to join Everton in late January 2013 he has been heralded as different from that of most other English central defenders. Composed on the ball, confident in bringing it into midfield, and able to pick a pass. What was there not to like about him?
Certainly his brand of football appealed to Pep Guardiola. When the Catalonian joined City in the summer he quickly identified Stones as the man to help him implement his passing out from the back style. Yet despite Stones’s outstanding technical ability, he has consistently demonstrated a lack of game awareness and an inability to perform even the most rudimentary defensive tasks.
Most people would agree that Guardiola’s teams play beautiful football. He believes that being able to play in all areas of the pitch enables his teams to attack vacated space and in turn penetrate the opposition. It has been effective – in Guardiola’s 7 seasons in management he has won a remarkable 22 trophies. He would point to this as a vindication of his methods.
Yet you nearly always get one chance against a Guardiola team. Essentially, he has hardly been a stickler for defensive discipline, and instead has very much shown a preference for attacking flare over defensive solidity. Historically, his teams have always been vulnerable at the back. It did not matter quite so much at Barcelona because he had Messi and co. to dig him out. At Bayern the relative weakness of the opposition meant that defensive lapses were not quite as readily punished. However, in his first three months in England, Guardiola has quickly found out that the Premier League is far more unforgiving. All of this may well lead to compelling viewing, yet it is hardly what Stones nor Manchester City need.
At 22, Stones is still in the infancy of his career; time is very much on his side. Yet worryingly he seems to have made little progress over the past 18 months. When Roberto Martinez was Everton manager, Stones and his team mates were given an almost tactical blank sheet. They were allowed to play their own brand of football almost wherever they wanted on the pitch. When mistakes inevitably happened Martinez would staunchly defend his players, suggesting that these mistakes were part and parcel of their development.
Of course what Martinez said had a certain amount of truth behind it; young footballers will often make mistakes, that in itself is not new nor surprising. However, what we tend to see after mistakes is a change and a realisation that things have to be improved. Martinez did not enforce that on his players, and particularly on Stones. Time and time again we saw the same schoolboy errors – playing passes in dangerous areas, diving into tackles, tactical naivety, and an inability to mark properly.
There would be those that argue that these mistakes are offset by Stone’s supreme talent on the ball. Michael Owen in particular has been vociferous in his praise for Stones, declaring he would be the only England player that would get into the Barcelona team. A somewhat sweeping statement, and one that is hardly a compliment to defenders who pride themselves on clean sheets and rock solid defending.
Others such as Rio Ferdinand, Phil Neville and of course Roberto Martinez have been forthright in their positive assessment of Stones. Yet this constant praise regardless of whether mistakes are made, seems to be having a negative effect on him. From the outside looking in it really does seem to have gone to his head – it is almost as if Stones believes his own hype.
If this is the case then it sets a dangerous and worrying precedent. Stones should not be allowed to think that he has played well, because, if we are being brutally honest, he has not.
When England played Scotland on Friday night there were reminders of just how vulnerable he is. His passing was lacklustre, his reading of the game was poor, and most worrying of all he seemed completely inept at marking from set pieces. In the first half, with England holding a slender 1-0 lead, he lost Grant Hanley at a corner. Stones’s body position, his inability to track the run, and then his petulant reaction shone a light on his defensive fragility. It was something more akin to Sunday league football, let alone an international fixture at Wembley.
Twitter was less than kind…
Grant Hanley misses a free header from a corner, guess who was meant to be marking him? John Stones
— Alex Turk (@_AlexTurk) November 11, 2016
John Stones. Marking for a corner. Drifts off. Free header. Turns around and shouts at his team mates. England’s captain for next 10 years.
— Jack Roylance (@roystar11) November 11, 2016
Although Hanley’s header was poor and sailed well over the bar, the incident was a reminder of how quickly things can change in football. Had he scored people would have been rightly criticising Stones and an inquisition into his defensive capabilities would have begun. Yet because Hanley missed, and England went on to record a comfortable 3-0 win, people chose to forget and avoid an issue which simply had to be addressed.
The worry is that Guardiola probably saw that mistake and yet will not have been particularly concerned. Stones will go back to City and little if anything at all will be done to ensure there is no repeat. Yet if Stones was still an Everton player he would be returning to a manager who prides himself on defensive resilience.
Ronald Koeman was one of the finest central defenders of his generation. A remarkable defender, his record of 253 goals in 763 games would please most centre forwards – for a central defender those sorts of stats are unprecedented.
Koeman played in the same Barcelona team as Guardiola, even captaining and scoring as they recorded their first triumph in Europe. That Barcelona team was managed by Johan Cruyff, seen by many as the father of the tika-taka football that Guardiola has employed throughout his managerial career. Koeman has also looked to adopt a possession style, yet he has never allowed his teams to be quite so readily exploited defensively. He simply would not have tolerated one of his central defenders defending like that from a set piece.
There are certainly parallels between Koeman and Stones; both excellent on the ball, neither conventional centre halves. Under Koeman, Stones would have prospered. The Dutchman would have been rigorous with Stones, ensuring that he learnt when to play and when not to. He may even have dropped him had he deemed it necessary.
Koeman has proved so much at Everton. Stones’s international team mate, Ross Barkley, has not been immune to criticism this season. Koeman’s approach is one of tough love, he is not one to pander to his players if he believes they are letting the side down. He came out and publicly criticised Barkley, and explained the reasons why he was being dropped and the ways in which he could improve and get back into the team. It is impossible to imagine Guardiola doing the same thing to Stones. Nevertheless, it increasingly seems that Stones would benefit from a Koeman-like approach.
However, there will be those who argue that Stones’s development is entirely normal and the mistakes are a small sacrifice for the other things he brings to the team. Call me old fashioned, but I believe that the immediate priority for any central defender is to keep clean sheets. That should be a pre-requisite, and it should give them as much satisfaction as a striker gets when scoring a goal. Quite frankly, anything beyond that should be considered a bonus.
The important question here is whether people see Stones as that sort of defender, or one that brings the ball out of defence and plays slightly more on the edge. Those who favour the latter would argue that such is his precocious talent on the ball that restricting it would ultimately be counterintuitive to his game.
It remains to be seen whether signing for City was the best for Stones’s career. Only time will tell, yet is he continues in the same vein of form then the signs are ominous. Something has to be done to address Stones’s failings, and the sooner the better.