Plenty of potential but Stones isn’t learning fast enough to justify the hype
Semi-final display summed defender’s career – lots of class but too many crucial mistakes
At the beginning of the year, Sky Sports broadcast a fine documentary about England’s World Cup winning team and, during the course of The Boys of 66, Bobby Moore’s majesty in possession was never far away from the discussion.
England’s fourth goal against Germany is mostly remembered for commentator Ken Wolstenholme’s iconic “they think it’s all over” line as Geoff Hurst smashed the ball into the net for his hat-trick but seconds earlier, Germany had been attacking down the right wing and swung a cross into the England penalty box.
Standing in the goal, Gordon Banks told the documentary he was screaming “get rid of it, get it out of the box”.
Instead, Moore chested the ball down, dribbled it out of the area and played a perfect pass over the top of the German defence for his second assist to Hurst of the day as the West Ham striker’s third goal crowned the greatest day in English football.
The day before the documentary was broadcast in January, Everton were playing Tottenham when John Stones got the ball in his own penalty box and tried to extricate himself from an opponent’s pressure by twisting and turning with the ball as the crowd grew more nervous of impending disaster.
After 50 years of English football evolution, the Goodison Park crowd, like Banks that day at Wembley, simply wanted Stones to kick it as far away from the goal as possible.
His gesture for them to “calm down” moments later may have been a sign of belief in his own ability, but it’s probably as high as his confidence got all season.
In the many interesting stories of this campaign, Stones’ loss of form is among the most intriguing.
It’s difficult to believe now but, back in August when Jose Mourinho was trying to sign him, virtually every goal that Chelsea conceded was met with pundits nodding sagely that those goals would be putting a couple of million onto Everton’s asking price for the 21-year-old.
What nobody seemed to notice as Chelsea conceded nine goals in their opening four league games to apparently push up Stones’ value was that he was at the heart of an Everton defence shipping two goals at home to both Watford and Manchester City and three in the League Cup against Barnsley.
There were also clean sheets at Southampton and Tottenham for which both Stones and Everton deserved credit but it’s a peculiar aspect of how young players are analysed that the hype about their potential is ramped up while their mistakes are excused because of their youth.
Saturday’s defeat against Manchester United was Stones’ season, and career, in microcosm as he looked classy in possession with steopovers, runs out of defence and some good tackles but the defensive instinct was still questionable.
Back in December, Rio Ferdinand was so annoyed after listening to people criticising Stones on a radio phone-in that he called in to defend him.
“It’s typical of people in this country, ‘oh he makes a mistake, he tries to do too many flash things’,” argued Ferdinand.
“He’s the best ball-playing centre-half about at the moment. Give the kid a chance to play and to grow and make mistakes.
“When I came through, Harry Redknapp used to say to me, ‘make mistakes – don’t worry – but don’t make the same ones all the time’.”
The first part of Ferdinand’s argument is difficult to disagree with, but Stones “trying things” while in possession isn’t the problem. It’s what he does, or rather doesn’t do, when opponents have the ball that should be of more concern.
Against Liverpool last week, he was out-jumped by Divock Origi, which can happen, but it was Stones’ lack of nous in trying to disrupt the run of a player who is just one month older than him which is alarming.
On Saturday, as Anthony Martial skipped down the left wing, there was only one team-mate for him to find in the box and, seeing as it was Marouane Fellaini, he shouldn’t have been that difficult for the defence to spot.
Yet, as Martial cut the ball back, Stones had been beaten to the ball by Fellaini – the equivalent of being over-taken by a double-decker bus on a motorway – and Everton found themselves 1-0 down, with Stones, as is often the case, on his backside having slid in with a last-ditch effort to prevent the goal.
It was the same spot in which he found himself several times at Anfield during Liverpool’s 37-shot onslaught on the Everton defence, while the third goal that night came because Stones invited pressure onto his beleaguered defence with a stupid pass into midfield.
For the winner on Saturday, it was Stones who broke the line of the back four which created the gap for Martial to exploit and was another example of Stones’ unfortunate habit of being the closest player to the goalscorer while not being sharp enough to prevent it.
Stones’ youth and inexperience could again be used as an excuse in the dying minutes of an FA Cup semi-final but the person who lured him out of position was Marcus Rashford, who is over three years younger than him, and whose attacking instinct was far superior than his opponent’s defensive one.
Stones then broke another defensive rule when he slowed his stride, seemingly thinking Phil Jagielka had the situation under control (and he probably should have) but as Ander Herrara poked the ball through it was Martial – 18 months younger than Stones – who had anticipated the scenario before the defender could react. Martial scored and Everton were out.
It might seem harsh but careers are built on making the right decisions at crucial moments and, had Mourinho managed to sign him, it’s hard to believe that he would still be making the same errors – particularly against players who aren’t gnarled, experienced, wily veterans but are Stones’ peers.
Much like the recent criticism of Seamus Coleman, there’s a growing belief that Stones isn’t learning enough at Everton, meaning a summer switch which now seems likely to be Manchester City should develop him futher.
It’s debatable whether Pep Guardiola will help his defensive instinct but given the scrutiny that would come with such a big money move, Stones needs to prove that he is capable of learning much faster than he has so far.