Back in August, I was fretting about Everton’s ageing defence and, as 2013 turned to 2014, my fears proved well founded, with key men like Phil Jagielka and Leighton Baines missing matches with injury, rushed back when not 100% right. But, as the Chinese proverb (and cliche) has it, every crisis is an opportunity and Everton’s defensive mini-crisis has underlined Roberto Martinez’s faith in youth – John Stones has featured in ten of this year’s 13 matches. He has taken his opportunity, so it’s timely to assess his progress.
An Englishman playing for Barnsley, he had just 20 matches under his belt when David Moyes paid £3M for his services just over a year ago. Now that may be loose change to a Champions League club, but it’s significant money for Everton: Moyes, a centre-half himself, must have seen something very special in the 18 year-old. Evertonians are beginning to see that too.
Over six foot tall, but with a wiry frame that is yet to fill out, Stones looks younger than his years and that youthfulness sometimes shows in his play. Alan Hansen will tell you that centre-back play is all about positioning – something John Terry proves week after week. I also heard a story about Steve Bould, sitting in one of those grand old stands at Highbury, giving a running commentary on centre-back play to a young Arsenal defender. It’s a position that needs learning. At Finch Farm, Stones would do well to listen to wise old heads like Sylvain Distin and Phil Jagielka on positional play – and we know The Manager will encourage exactly that exchange of knowledge.
Asked to play out of position at full-back, Stones has made one or two poor decisions in possession – but we know that the Martinez Project demands many accurate passes and some will prove ill-advised or go astray. Distin’s improvement in distribution over the season shows that even the oldest of dogs can learn new tricks.
What John Stones has shown – and it’s the priceless asset that persuaded Moyes to pay the millions – is pace to burn. Over 30 yards, three yards or the crucial one yard that recovers an error, Stones is lightning, an unlikely looking athlete to match the muscular Frenchman alongside him. This pace cannot be taught – everything else can.
Older Blues will recall another raw defender who spent some time at full-back before settling in at centre-back, another defender whose pace was an unteachable natural asset, another whose development was almost visible, so quickly did he become one of the best defenders in Europe – Kevin Ratcliffe. John Stones may not achieve all that Everton’s captain in the glory years of the mid-80s achieved, but he’s starting with the same gifts in the same way and the lad has a chance – a real chance.
M. Distin may be able to hang his boots up next year after all and I can stop fretting.