I’d hate to blow smoke up the proverbial of a young, obviously talented, but relatively unproven home-grown talent, yet once again I find myself committing that cardinal sin in regards to Everton‘s defensive wizz-kid John Stones.
The 19 year-old has dazzled Toffees supporters in recent weeks, amid Phil Jagielka’s sidelining through injury, with his most pinnacle performance to date coming in a Man of the Match display against Sunderland last weekend, where the right-back-come-central-defender made more clearances (9) and blocked more shots (5) than any player on the pitch.
The Wearside club may not be the most potent side we’ve seen in the Premier League this season, rather, their 29 goals for, averaging at under one goal per match, is the worst scoring return in the entire division. But regardless, it’s incredibly telling of Stones’ reading of the game that he was required to make just a single tackle throughout the ninety minutes, whilst Everton managed to record a clean sheet away from home in the 1-0 encounter.
In fact, from Stones’ nine Premier League starts in the centre-back role this season, the Goodison outfit have conceded just five times in his presence, claiming clean sheets against the Black Cats, Arsenal, Newcastle and Norwich and racking up 19 points out of a possible 21 in the process.
Resultantly, there have been calls for the young defender to receive a late ascension into Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad, which begs the question, should the England manager be taking this Toffees hotshot to Brazil, or is this a tournament too early for Stones?
The Everton youngster is clearly a talented player, and far from being the defensive stalwart his prominent clean sheets haul might suggest, it’s Stones’ ability to link up with midfield, personifying the core, purist values of the Roberto Martinez ethos, that has produced such sudden and widespread acclaim.
Predominantly considered as a right-back at former club Barnsley, Stones comes with a unique skill set for the centre-back berth, donning pace, agility and the natural technique you’d expect of a modern full-back. Resultantly, the teen defender boasts a pass completion rate of 90% this term, on average making around 33 passes per match. Far from a sideways stat-whore whoever, the vast majority of Stones’ passes have been in a positive direction, whilst he’s also shown enormous confidence in simply picking up the ball and driving up the pitch with it, keenly and responsibly taking possession in difficult areas.
I haven’t seen a home-grown centre-back do that since Rio Ferdinand, and the buzz surrounding Stones can certainly be sourced to his rather exclusive style of defending, perhaps more in line with those from the continent.
But let’s not be rash here. This is a player whom, impressive or not, has made just 17 Premier League appearances in his entire career. This high praising of a foreign style of play is the kind of thing we said about Jack Wilshere during his first full season at Arsenal and Manchester United’s Tom Cleverley. This is a similar level presumptuous hyping once received by such illustrious Three Lions alumni as Michael Ricketts, Seth Johnson and David Nugent.
Indeed, the coming World Cup could be a tournament too soon for Stones. Despite recently declaring during a Sky Sports interview that the 19 year-old had been the Toffees’ best trainer this season – a title decided by Roberto Martinez’ method of awarding points to his players on a weekly basis, with the highest recipient in line for a prize at the end of the year – the Everton manager admitted that Stones still had a long way to go before representing his country at a major tournament.
But if there’s one lonesome World Cup strategy that’s undoubtedly served England well over the years, it’s the customary tactic of bringing one budding youngster to the major tournament ahead of schedule. A 19 year-old Rio Ferdinand went to France ’98, Joe Cole went to the 2002 World Cup at just 20 years of age, and in 2006, to much surprise and criticism, Sven Goran Eriksen included a 17 year-old Theo Walcott in his World Cup roster. Most recently, Jack Butland and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got the nod from Roy Hodgson for Euro 2012, despite their exceptionally limited exposure to top flight and international football at the time.
It’s a trick which is yet to throw its first curve-ball. All, with the exception of Jack Butland, have emerged as key players for club and country since their premature England inclusions, and as much as one can credit prior England managers for spotting future stars, one can’t ignore the obvious benefits of experiencing the unique World Cup atmosphere at such a tender age has had on the careers of these players.
Many will argue that if Roy Hodgson is to follow suit at the coming tournament in Brazil, then the ceremonial position in the England squad should go to Southampton’s Luke Shaw, who by far and large has been the most impressive home-grown youngster over the last two seasons. But England’s heart of defence currently faces a grim future; if Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott were slim pickings enough, then their current most likely successors – Ryan Shawcross, Steven Caulker and Chris Smalling – send a macabre chill down one’s spine. With the exception of Phil Jones, the Three Lions’ golden age of world-class centre-halves appears to have come to a rather abrupt end.
Could John Stones emerge as a timely saviour? Inclusion in the World Cup squad, albeit in a non-playing capacity, would certainly put him on the right path.
Hodgson has declared however that his 23-man roster will include no abrupt surprises. No maverick Adam Johnsons, no cult-hero Gareth Barrys, no Championship wonder-kids of the Danny Ings variety. Therefore, much to my personal disappointment, a late call-up for the Everton prodigy appears incredibly unlikely, especially considering his place in the Toffees backline will presumably be returned to Phil Jagielka once the 31 year-old has recovered from his sideline bout.
But fear not young Stones; with Jagielka at 31, Cahill 29 and Lescott turning 32 by the end of the summer, Euro 2016 is already loudly calling your name.