It’s especially pleasing to see a young player given their chance in a team and grasping it with aplomb. There’s something innately refreshing about witnessing a fresh face make their mark and typically, when a youngster yields a positive contribution, the watching crowd stir and purr a little more than usual.
But one spot on the pitch you rarely see young players get a chance to make a prolonged impression is at centre-back. When you’re in that position of profound responsibility, mistakes are punished, naivety is exploited and consequentially, inexperienced players are rarely trusted there. John Stones is a young man that’s defying that narrative, though.
Billed as a fullback when signing from Barnsley in January 2013, the then teenager was David Moyes’ last ever signing for the Toffees. And after cementing his place as Everton’s best central defender with some glitzy recent displays, the England international was clearly a parting gift of the very highest calibre from the club’s much maligned former manager.
Stones never featured under Moyes, but he clearly impressed the Glaswegian’s successor Roberto Martinez sufficiently enough to play a key role in the Catalan’s first pre-season at the club. And his commanding display in a friendly against Juventus—capped off by an unashamedly brash dinked penalty—was a sign of wonderful things to come.
The then 19-year-old made his first Premier League start for the club on New Year’s Day, impressing alongside Antolin Alcaraz in a 1-1 draw at Stoke City. But it was during the vital run in where he made his impression; the youngster was thrust into the first XI after an injury to skipper Phil Jagielka.
With Stones at the back, Everton embarked on a seven-game winning run and came within a whisker of qualifying for the Champions League. And this season—while Everton have been very poor defensively all in all—the youngster has again acquitted himself superbly. The Toffees have conceded three goals in the four games Stones has started at centre-back; compare that to the 16 in five games without him there and his influence is undeniably positive.
After tinkering with Stones at right-back—a position he’s nowhere near as effective in—it finally seems that Martinez, like the majority of Evertonians, is content with the fact that the 20-year-old is now the Toffees’ premier central defender. And it’s easy to see why, for Everton look a side emboldened with him in situ.
There are certain young players that emit an aura when they stride out onto the field, and the young man from Barnsley is bristling with that intangible air. He’s unshakeably assured for one so young, and his magnificent displays at Anfield in the Merseyside derby and against Krasnodar in the depths of Russia were comparable to those of a seasoned defensive veteran.
On the ball, the England man is as composed as you like too. Stones surges out of defence with vigour and purpose, and when he comes under pressure, he surreptitiously pops the ball off or drops a shoulder make a yard of space. He’s eminently unflustered and for a player in the relative infancy of their career, that’s mightily impressive.
It’s a composure that transcends to the defensive side of his game too, and that’s not to say he’s a lackadaisical player by any stretch. His positional sense is already excellent and he’s acutely adept at spotting danger before insouciantly swooping in to mop up. Stones’ rangy somatotype also enables him to make some stunningly elegant sliding tackles, another facet to his game that is aesthetically pleasing
Martinez—who tried to sign Stones when he was Wigan manager—deserves great credit for expediting the development of this unique talent, and while the Everton boss has readily talked up his brightest young prospects, there’s clear clout behind the notion that the graceful 20-year-old could go on to be one of the very best.
Stones still has plenty to learn about being a Premier League centre-back, so it’s critical Everton do their utmost to preserve and protect his precocious ability. But he’s got the requisite temperament to learn and already his displays this season have showcased myriad refinements.
Of course there’s still the odd heart-in-mouth moment, but he’s taking considerably less risks on the ball this season already. And in truth, while his boldness may occasionally get him in trouble, Stones always seems to create time to strut proudly away from the overwhelming majority of situations with a deliciously cocky panache.
Ball-playing central defenders of Stones’ calibre are a rarity in the English game, and although he’s filled a hole at right-back for the Three Lions as of late, it’s surely only a matter of time before he establishes himself as a regular in the heart of Roy Hodgson’s back four.
When he does, expect Stones, just as he has done so with such serene sophistication on the pitch in Everton blue, to take it all in his stride.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattJFootball
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