John Stones is England’s best defensive prospect – he reads the game well and is an excellent passer, as well as playing with a maturity that is well beyond his age. His strength of character, however, is perhaps one of his most impressive qualities, whether it be the willingness to have a battle (and win) against Andy Carroll away at West Ham, or scoring a vital goal just 16 minutes after gifting one to Radamel Falcao. To have these raw qualities and the backing of Pep Guardiola to be City’s key defender at just 22-years-old is remarkable. Looking at the vast improvement of Gerard Piqué, Javi Martínez, Jérôme Boateng, and other centre-halves under Pep, you don’t have to be ‘Paul the Octopus’ to suggest Stones is more than likely to become a world-class centre-half and will almost certainly become City’s (and probably England’s) captain at some point.
So why does he receive so much abuse from so many people? I think the fact he doesn’t play like a ‘normal’ English centre-half means he is treated with a scepticism that is common when new ideas are attempted in sport: think Bill James and Billy Beane in baseball, or even Pep this season allegedly not adjusting to the Premier League in certain games. He’s also a victim of an abnormal transfer fee, creating a sense of immediate expectation. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but some of the criticisms aimed at him, too much of the time, seem to be exaggerated and personal, as if there is a poisonous vendetta against him. When Phil Neville (of all people) said that the abuse is “as if we are trying to destroy the kid”, he was (surprisingly) absolutely right.
I have heard “50 million for that” as Stones makes the unforgivable crime of passing the ball back to the goalkeeper, showing there is obviously something wrong. The media constantly berates him, often unfairly. As I got in my car after the Monaco game, the BBC 5 Live radio intelligentsia were not talking about the extraordinary game they had just witnessed, nor City’s fantastic attacking display. The question posed to callers was “Is John Stones good enough?”, which sums up the problem for me. Certain media outlets have set an agenda around John Stones, which has unfortunately seemed to spread to some City fans. Otamendi, a far inferior centre-half, receives nowhere near the level of abuse or criticism Stones gets. Even previously supportive journalists like Henry Winter now seem to try to pounce on every little mistake made. Why?
‘Playing out from the back’ is something that divides opinion, but it is clear it is here to stay for Pep’s tenure and probably beyond. He has certainly not been helped by the injuries of Vincent Kompany, or the gap between defence and attack left by Yaya’s occupation of the pivote role, which was, probably for the first time, noticeable against Monaco.
There are valid criticisms of Stones and he is prone to making mistakes. His decision-making and strength are probably two of his biggest flaws, but these are two problems which inevitably improve with time. But fans must get behind Stones after he goes through tricky periods, of which there will be more to come. We have to accept that he will he make mistakes as a 22-year-old playing at the highest level, and that with every mistake he will learn a lesson. His progression to becoming a world-class centre-half is something, no doubt, every City fan wants to see, but criticising and swallowing the media agenda against him no questions asked, may well halt that progression entirely.
This situation is nothing new, however. Take Raheem Sterling last season. As an English 21-year-old moving to a big club for big money, coupled with a vitriolic “Judas” narrative not seen in English football since Sol Campbell’s move to Arsenal, meant he was under intense pressure before he kicked a ball. Too many City fans joined the cause, and they have been proven to have been absolutely wrong. In his transition season, he mixed admittedly poor games with some very good ones, but the potential was always there to see. This season he has been arguably City’s best player. The same will happen with Stones. He is already a good defender and has an unbelievable amount of potential, but to realise it fully he needs support. He will get it from Pep, but will he get it from everyone else?