It was 3 January 2016, the closing minutes of Tottenham Hotspur’s visit to Goodison Park, and Everton were on the brink of their first point in three home matches when John Stones took possession inside his penalty area with Son Heung-min breathing down his neck.
What followed demonstrated the composure, the class and the overindulgence of the most expensive defender in English football history. Remove the flaw, and Pep Guardiola may not have to justify £47.5m for a foundation of the Manchester City defence for years to come.
Six days before the 1-1 draw with Spurs, in almost the same spot and stage of the game, Stones had conceded a 90th-minute penalty against Stoke City as Roberto Martínez’s masochistic team lost 4-3 having led 3-2 with 10 minutes to go. Now, ignoring the Park end’s pleas to launch it, the England international evaded the Spurs striker with a series of Cruyff turns, won a free-kick and responded with a “cool it” gesture to the Evertonians berating his apparent insouciance. Stoke was fresh in their minds but evidently had not ruffled Stones. Precious little does, though Martínez’s assistant, Graeme Jones, may disagree.
That moment against Spurs was illuminating. Stones often left Goodison purring yet frequently last season fans were pleading for the basics from England’s most stylish defender since Rio Ferdinand. He earned the right to react to the fans against Spurs but supporters had cause to criticise as his list of punished mistakes mounted. More stemmed from careless, needless passes or static defending than any Cruyff turns – there was evidence of both in the shambolic 4-0 defeat at Liverpool before Stones left the pitch with stomach cramps – and their repetition increased scrutiny on Everton’s former management team.
“I’ve said this before about John Stones,” said Jamie Carragher when commentating on that Tottenham game. “People come back at me and say: ‘Oh, typical English mentality, it’s about time we had a player who steps out with the ball.’ I’ve had five or six foreign managers and not one of them would want me – or any defender – to be doing Cruyff turns in the six-yard box. Hopefully Roberto Martínez is telling him that.”
Unfortunately for Stones, Everton and ultimately Martínez’s job security, the defender’s tendency to take unnecessary risks was indulged, not eradicated. After another error brought fresh criticism last season Stones, an intelligent and grounded lad from Barnsley, had a row with Jones at training over Everton’s flawed style of play. There were audible exchanges between the pair during matches last season and even when Sam Allardyce commented on another club’s business, the new England manager appeared accurate rather than patronising.
“I’d like to sign Stones,” the then Sunderland manager said in May. “I’d teach him how to defend. It wouldn’t be too difficult to show him, a player of his intelligence, when and where to do things. You’re never going to stop a player of his ability coming out with the ball and passing it around, but don’t do it at the wrong time. Rio Ferdinand made sense to me. He got it exactly right. He was very similar at a young age. People said he overplayed and kept getting caught out but, by the age of 25 or 26, he was one of the best centre‑backs in the world as a defender who could play as well.”
Evertonians were aggrieved when Stones submitted a transfer request amid persistent advances from Chelsea last summer but few, in all honesty, could have begrudged the defender a move for the sake of his career as Martínez’s reign unravelled. Ronald Koeman’s arrival may have raised hope of a rapprochement but Stones was sold on Guardiola and the Champions League long before the City manager’s close friend took charge at Goodison.
Not playing a single minute at the European Championship for England, while the inferior Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill were selected ahead of him by Roy Hodgson, may have strengthened the resolve for a fresh start. Koeman wants to sign two more physically imposing central defenders with Stones’s future clarified, and the captain Phil Jagielka missing key parts of pre-season with a hamstring injury.
In fairness to Martínez, a record transfer fee has been paid for a young English defender whose rare natural talent and temperament he showcased in the Premier League on a regular basis. The former Everton manager steadfastly refused offers rising to £30m from Chelsea 12 months ago and put faith in potential when more experienced alternatives were available. Not every top-flight manager would have done so, and it is worth considering Stones’s age, just 22, when criticising the flaws that can be addressed and City’s long-term investment.
“He is demanded by everyone to be the perfect footballer but that’s not going to happen,” Martínez said after the England defender was pilloried for a mistake against Holland. “At 21 he is well ahead of where he should be and I think we should all be a bit more aware that he is a young player.”
Stones was one part of a collective breakdown at Everton last season. Before then, his reading of the game and ball-playing ability appeared tailor‑made for a team following the Guardiola philosophy. Now we will discover how it develops with the real thing. Martínez’s hyperbole grated at Goodison and describing Stones as “potentially the best centre-back that England has ever produced” was one example.
However, the full quote rang true on many occasions and is worth revisiting in the light of an exorbitant transfer. “I’m saying potentially,” Martínez added, “because he’s still a young man and until he’s played 400-500 games you can’t make an assessment of what he’s done. But he’s incredible on the ball – I haven’t seen another English player who’s got the ability to start play in that manner. He can be left one v one, he’s very good in the air, he reads the game fantastically well and he’s got a terrific ability to adapt to different partners. As a player, the character reflects what he is: very calm, very composed and his potential is quite unique.”
Stones was David Moyes’ last signing as Everton manager in January 2013, and a deal rising to £3m for a young Barnsley prospect was a footnote to that day’s story about him missing out on the Sevilla striker Álvaro Negredo. It turns out Moyes, who left for Manchester United at the end of his contract that season, did generate compensation for Everton after all.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010