There was no need for a hero as England ran riot over Panama in their second game of the 2018 World Cup, but an unlikely one stole at least part of the day.
No one was needed to dig Gareth Southgate’s men out of a hole, as Harry Kane did in the opening game against Tunisia. But if Kane’s late finish in Volgograd caused a spike in blood pressure, an early header from John Stones had the opposite effect, calming the nerves of a team who would go on to win handsomely.
Stones’s two goals were unexpected, but after the first outing against the North Africans, the warning signs were there. This England team had been hailed as a progressive side that likes to play passing football and carve the opposition apart by force of invention rather than of might. And yet, this is also a team who are proving dangerous from set-plays. And so maybe the Manchester City man’s contribution to the goal tally shouldn’t have been all that surprising.
Against Tunisia, Stones mishit a good chance from inside the box after getting in a great position from a corner. He was then on target with a header which was brilliantly saved by the goalkeeper before Harry Kane turned in the rebound for the Three Lions’ opener. There were certainly signs.
You can go back further, too. John Stones has always seemed to many like something of a frustrated midfield player with his insistence on passing out from the back, but in Manchester City’s victory over Feyenoord in the Champions League at the start of last season, he already showed his goalscoring side.
Opening the scoring that night in Rotterdam, too, the England man addeed a second later on in a 4-0 win which kickstarted City’s Champions League campaign on their way to topping their group. Both goals were headers from corners, and on that night you got the feeling that Pep Guardiola’s side would have a secret set-piece weapon – once again, for a side you fancied less from corner kicks than from open play.
It wasn’t to be for Stones last season. He’d go on to score only one more goal all campaign (another header from a corner in the Champions League against Napoli). But it was after the Feyenoord game when Stones first said it: those words which felt so foreign when uttered by a central defender – “I’m trying to add more goals to my game.”
It may have taken until the World Cup for his premonition to come true, but it begs the question: if Stones has been such a goal threat from set-pieces in three games this season, why can’t he be like that all year long?
Perhaps this is the start of a new, more consistent Stones in front of goal. A man getting into good positions and heading home from set-pieces as he threatened to do after his Champions League performances in the Autumn. Or maybe this is just another frustrating flash of goalscoring form that fizzles out just as quickly as the last one.