It’s as if trying to play football has become the ultimate misdeed, a task too closely affiliated with risk to even bother attempting. “Into Row Z, lad!” “Clear it!” Avert danger at all costs is the message to Premier League defenders. Get rid and you shall receive praise for playing the beautiful game in the most ugly way.
The powerfully-built, no-nonsense central defender has become synonymous with Premier League football – the pantomime villain we choose to promote our game to the world. “La Liga might be a breeze, Lionel, but come to England and see how you get on against Ashley Williams”. It’s ridiculous to think that the world’s best player would struggle against this type of defender when twiglets like David Silva and Mesut Özil have made a name for themselves embarrassing stocky Premier League centre-backs on a weekly basis.
But so long as you don’t humiliate yourself, you’re safe. The opposition scored from the throw-in you gave away, but it’s OK because you averted the danger. Playing the ball down the line into your attacker, who would have found himself one-on-one with their last man, would’ve been too risky. Can you imagine what could have happened if the pass had been intercepted? Unfortunately, that’s the way many of us view defending and the reason many have no time for John Stones.
As a defender, Stones thinks differently. Standing at 6 feet 2 inches, Stones is built like the archetypal English centre-back fully capable of muscling an attacker off the ball and lamping a hopeful ball up-field. Of course, there are times when that may be the most sensible option and a player of Stones’s intelligence will know when to adopt such tactics, but whenever possible, Stones will make every effort to play out from the back and contribute to a fluent surge into the opposition’s territory. It’s an ideal he shares with his club manager Pep Guardiola who, unlike Roberto Martínez, encourages that style of play.
Speaking before the Everton defender had completed his £50m move to the Etihad Stadium in August, Guardiola said: “He [Stones] has the quality to create good build-up play and can play a forward pass. We need to create good build-up play with easy passes in midfield.” There’s a reason Guardiola sanctioned such a huge deal for the player.
The 22-year-old has been a regular fixture in City’s side so far this season and has stepped up as a leader in Vincent Kompany’s absence. There have been mistakes – the back-pass against Southampton gave his critics a huge piece of flesh to chomp on last month – but the maturity he has shown at such a young age in a team challenging on all fronts has been extraordinary. Here is a player redefining the responsibilities of a Premier League central defender at the age of 22 and it’s a feat that should be applauded rather than scrutinised.
Sam Wallace of the Telegraph chose to zoom in on the defender following England’s 3-0 World Cup qualifying win over Scotland on Friday night, commenting that watching Stones ‘can be an unnerving experience’. But it can also be a rewarding one. And more often than not, it’s an enjoyable one. Stones is a forward thinking player trying to play in the game in the way that Andrés Iniesta plays the game and that, quite frankly, is brilliant for English football. There’s no doubt that Stones has contributed significantly to the beautiful football Guardiola’s City have played this term.
There’s a reason the best receive the most criticism and that’s because their ideas do not conform to those of the majority whose mistakes are camouflaged by the sheep around them. After all, there are safety in numbers. Choose to stand out and you are alone, a target board for constant critique. But when tempers have calmed and the red mist has settled, very few would argue against the fact that Manchester City and the England national team are in possession of an incredible talent.