Opinions

Opinion: Why John Stones is more important to Manchester City than he ever was for Everton

In what was seemingly an inevitable transfer, Pep Guardiola had to wait a fair amount of time to get his man. The Blues finally completed the signing of the 22 year-old Everton defender on the 9th of August for an initial fee of £47.5 million. John Stones is undoubtedly one of the best prospects in English football, but the fee has understandably raised eyebrows.

Stones didn’t have the best of seasons under Roberto Martinez during the 2015-16 campaign, contributing to the most errors which led directly to a goal of any outfielder in the Premier League. His composed style of play split Everton fans down the middle, with many suggesting that he was ‘overly calm’. Their frustration with Stones was conveyed by their jeering during a Premier League match in which he held onto the ball and won a free-kick, rather than just hoofing the ball out of play.

Everton have since brought in Ashley Williams as a direct replacement for Stones, for a fee of £9 million. Williams, 31, is a no-nonsense defender who excels when it comes to the ‘traditional’ art of defending. Stones is a fantastic player, but it should be acknowledged that Everton have conducted a fantastic piece of business here. Ronald Koeman is by no means a ‘hoof-ball’ type of manager, but his centre-back pairings usually consist of defenders who are good at defending. Stones was ranked 58th by Squawka in the Premier League last season for ‘defensive actions’ (interceptions, blocks and clearances). Williams, his replacement, finished first in the same category, with Everton saving £30 million in the process. This is echoed by the fact that Everton have also targeted Lamine Koné of Sunderland, who was ranked second by Squawka for ‘defensive actions’, another ‘traditional’ defender. So from their point of view, they should be very pleased with how the club have handled Stones’ departure.

Whilst Stones’ defensive stats are far from perfect, we must remember that he has not had the best mentor at Everton. Roberto Martinez’s teams are renowned for their inability to defend. Martinez’s tactical ineptitude when it comes to defending was a worry before he joined Everton, and he did little to change that perception during his time in Merseyside. His team conceded the joint-fifth most goals in the 2015/2016 season, and just one less than relegated Hull City the season before. Therefore it would be terribly unfair to blame Stones for his poor defensive statistics.

It would also be unfair to claim that Stones is not ready or good enough for a club like Manchester City. While he certainly has his flaws – seemingly a common theme with Manchester City defenders – he has a great amount of room to improve. He only turned 22 a few months ago, yet has already attracted the interest of Real Madrid and Barcelona, has made ten England appearances, and won a call up to Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2016 squad. Furthermore, Stones will no longer have an inept defensive coach, he will now be mentored by Pep Guardiola, a man whose teams have conceded the least goals in their respective leagues for the past seven years running. People writing off Stones now will be made to eat their words.

All of this is before we even consider Stones’ current strengths and what he will bring to the City team. Stephen Tudor called John Stones ‘a 21st century defender’ on last week’s City Watch Podcast, a phrase that describes him perfectly. Stones’ game does not stop at the traditional aspects of defending, and it’s his other attributes which set him apart from the rest. His ability on the ball is second to none when it comes to other Premier League centre-halves, with his long-range passing capable of putting his team from on the back-foot to on the attack in the blink of an eye. The way that he strides out of defence has been likened to former Liverpool centre-half, Alan Hansen, who Jamie Carragher claimed was ‘a midfielder playing in defence’. Despite Stones rightfully being classed as a 21st century defender, there simply aren’t many like him in this current era of football. This is where he becomes so valuable to Pep Guardiola and Manchester City.

Throughout pre-season, Guardiola instructed his team to play out from the back, no matter how difficult the situation, something that City struggled with greatly. Both Joe Hart and Willy Caballero looked nervy, while Tosin Adarabioyo and Aleksandar Kolarov, the most frequently used defensive partnership, have both directly contributed to opposition goals. With Vincent Kompany indefinitely injured and the inconsistency of Nicolas Otamendi, the signing of Stones is essential to the success of Pep’s system. His style of play permeates composure throughout the team, with his ability on the ball making it much easier for the whole team to play ‘the Guardiola way’. This has been evident throughout the first four games of the season; Stones has slotted into the team with ease, having been named as Sky’s ‘Man of the Match’ in the most recent Premier League game, against Stoke.

Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi are both fairly good with the ball at their feet, but they are by no means specialised ‘ball playing defenders’. Guardiola relies on these defenders massively. The first example of this was at Barcelona, where Pep turned Gerard Pique, a defender who wasn’t fancied in England, into one of the best ball-playing defenders in the world. Undoubtedly the best example however, is Jerome Boateng. Boateng, as many of you will recall, was bang average during his time with The Blues. When Pep arrived at Bayern, he loved Boateng’s lack of defensive know-how, as it gave him a blank canvas to paint his defensive philosophy on. After three years of working with Boateng, Guardiola has transformed him into one of the great centre-backs, and there is certainly a strong case for arguing that he is currently the best defender in the world. Stones comes to City in the same sort of scenario that Boateng came to Bayern in; he has all of the talent in the world, but is in desperate need of a mentor. After seeing Stones’ assured start to life at Manchester City, Pep will surely be confident of achieving Boateng-like results with the Barnsley-born defender.

Off the pitch, Stones comes across as a lovely young man, possessing the right sort of personality to become a cult-hero at the club, providing he continues to do well on the pitch. He is held in very high regard by his England team-mates Raheem Sterling, Fabian Delph and Joe Hart, who told him “come here, we need you.” It pains me to make the comparison, but Stones is strikingly similar to Rio Ferdinand, both in terms of playing style and career path. The former United defender was also a ’21st century defender’ and signed for the Stretford-based club in what was a record deal for a defender at the time. His fee however, is rarely mentioned due to his incredible success at the club, in which he won the Premier League six times, Champions League once and also captained England. Stones has also been touted as a future England captain by his former Everton boss, Roberto Martinez, and if Stones fulfils his potential in the same fashion as Ferdinand, his transfer fee will be quickly forgotten.

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