Throughout the past few years, John Stones has been a polarizing figure in the English football media landscape. His meteoric rise was subsequently met with distrust and scorn once his affinity for possession started to be seen as a possible weakness in the eyes of certain prominent pundits. However, despite the roller coaster in tone regarding the coverage of the young Englishman, the consensus feels universal; John Stones is a talented young defender with the ability to become something palpably great, but he's not there yet.
The negative coverage truly took hold around the beginning of the season last year when Everton was searching for a culprit for their poor league form. Stones had impressed the year before and many projected the former Barnsley man to build upon his breakout year. However, an unrelenting, fast-paced Martinez team didn't exactly provide the best environment for him to flourish and Stones found himself in and out of the team as the year progressed.
A year on and the perception about the former Everton defender has changed. Despite one defensive error this season, almost every performance in a sky blue shirt has been fantastic, and his well-known inclination for time on the ball, while for whatever reason never adequately and publicly recognized, has become an essential part of Pep Guardiola's Manchester City team. However, if we look at the statistics, Stones hasn't necessarily improved massively between his final season as a Toffee and his first few games as a Citizen.
Since we're looking at event data that doesn't equate to the same period of time, we'll be using per 90 metrics to get a better picture of comparison. pic.twitter.com/LiBU8stG0q
— Nick Morales (@Nico_OMorales) October 21, 2016
As displayed in the graphic above, though Stones has improved marginally, there isn't enough of a rise to suggest that the player is massively different than he was a year ago at Everton. What the comparison of these metrics should illuminate is the difference in system and how it affects the player. Under Roberto Martinez, Stones was in a team that held an average of 51% possession while his current Manchester City outfit averages closer to 60%. Martinez was never shy about the fact that he wasn't bothered about conceding goals, as long as his team scored more. The Spaniard loved attractive, attacking football that left his defense wide open in a variety of situations. Guardiola is entirely different. With a primary focus on ball retention, the Catalan's system is quantified and calculated in nature, and John Stones sits at the very heart of what Pep himself says is essential to the entire operation; the buildup. Through incisive positioning and an astonishing 90% average pass accuracy, the Barnsley-born defender has made himself virtually undroppable from game one.
Enter, "The England Problem." Though the nature of the inquest is often understandable, the English media's obsession with comparing a player's form in a club shirt versus one adorned with the three lions is often misguided. Theo Walcott's recent inability to put goals up for country while being able to do so for the Gunners is the latest example of the attention placed on English players selected for National team duties. Though I may not be able to cover why the pacey Arsenal forward couldn't make the difference against Slovakia, the situation does offer some parallels when it comes to Stones. As stated before, the central defender realizes his best and greatest potential when playing in a system that emphasizes possession; the problem being that England is not a possession team.
Analyzing the style that the English National team should pursue would require an entirely different article and more than likely even not even that would suffice, but since the head honchos within the coaching team at England have consistently chosen a collection of the best players rather than the best players for their squad, one may draw the conclusion that the stylistic difference may never be one that adheres to Stones' play style.
Gerard Pique faced a similar issue early on in his career. The former Manchester United defender had an immemorable time at Old Trafford, yet has grown into one of the world's most respected defenders upon returning to Barcelona; uncoincidentally under the very same Pep Guardiola. The reason being is that these two players almost redefine the position and it's functionality with their ability with the ball, failing to adhere to the standard confines of an average central defender. They excel with the ball at their feet and in limited defensive situations but aren't particularly spectacular in teams that don't focus on ball retention. England doesn't, and probably never will, focus on ball retention, and with that realization, Stones probably isn't the man for them. Pique had the fortune of being involved with two teams whose central focus was possession in Barcelona and La Roja, but Stones isn't going to be afforded the same luxury.
Kristan Heneage spoke with me about Pique and our current perception of the Spanish world cup winner.
(regarding Pique's time at United) "I'd say underutilized and needlessly exposed. He was everything you assume negatively about a foreign centre-back. He was taken aback by the pace, a fairly skinny young lad, that you could sense the opposition wanted to target."
"I think there's an air of revisionism about it. I don't think he becomes the Pique we know if he stays there."
The system in which players are placed in is so important to how one can best utilize their talents, and understanding how significantly it can impact a players performance will allow the general public to separate fact from fiction. John Stones can become something great, but, like any player, it's about highlighting his strengths and discerning whether he fits into a particular team or not.