Sticks and Stones

Ever heard someone saying “A camel is a horse planned by committee”? For most of his career, John Stones has looked like a thoroughbred racehorse beyond compare. To describe him as cool and calm would be a disservice to him. As a twenty year old, he wowed us. Most (all?) of us have never seen a player like him at his position in royal blue, and absolutely not at his age. Stepping out of defence with all the assurance of a parent joining their kids kick-about at the park, only Stones was gliding past established premier league players, established internationals: he didn’t care who you were. Drop of the shoulder one way, a flick of the hips the other. We were in awe, and so was the rest of Europe. To see Barcelona linked surprised nobody. Chelsea came in- we were desperate for him to stay. Because we knew he was the best young centre half about. His game has it all….

We weren’t just wanting to beat Chelsea in September: we were wanting to stick two fingers up to them in the process. He was ours, and we wanted to rub it in their faces that he was ours. Trouble is, Chelsea has been one of the few high points in another sorely disappointing league campaign- Stones was good that day- outperforming John Terry and Kurt Zouma at centre half down the opposite half of the pitch, but it’s been a season of struggles for Stones, too.

Thousands of Evertonians have vociferously had their say at the match when he’s made decisions that have left us all feeling uneasy. Countless columns have been dedicated to scrutinising his form- most of which have been worse than others, but, for me, most confusing of all: some of our fans calling for him to play him in centre midfield. If Stones isn’t nurtured and allowed room to grow and make the mistakes he’ll learn from- there’s a danger that the committee who’ve all been so keen to chip in their ten pence worth on Stones, will conspire to turn one of the most effortlessly graceful centre halves into a midfield camel. It’s almost as though we’ve all forgotten he’s twenty one. Two years ago last January, he was still at Barnsley. Where’s our patience for a player who, for the vast majority of his time in the first team, has been a joy to watch- cherished by young and old alike?

Not twenty two until after the season is over, Stones has only played in fifty eight premier league games to date. The player most like him that I’ve seen in my lifetime: Rio Ferdinand, by my count had played in ninety one by the time he turned twenty two. Stones is a player who is clearly still learning, but he needs to be allowed space to do that. His learning should never come at the expense of the team, but that’s sort of how you learn: you make bad decisions, make mistakes… Then over time with the benefit of experience, you get garner wisdom to make better decisions. When Ross Barkley broke into the side two years ago, he did great- then he dipped for a year, and now he’s made massive strides into this year. Stones did well in the eleven games he played in 2013/14, but in his first established year in royal blue last year, he was nothing short of exceptional. This year? Not so much. Up and down, but the downs of this year stick in your mind more so, and there were no moans when he lost his place when he, Funes Mori, and Phil Jagielka were all fit. Is Stones one year behind the Ross Barkley curve, given he’s effectively played one year less in the big league? Maybe. Quite possibly. I certainly wouldn’t bet against him bouncing back next year, and continuing his career trajectory towards being one of the best young centre halves in the world. Because that’s what he was last year. A few bad games don’t define him. A handful doesn’t, either. Here’s the scoop: young players frustrate, and all players suffer periods of bad form. We’re getting a kid who has had the world at his feet in bad form- it doesn’t necessarily have to be more than that. He’s a twenty one years old playing the most unforgiving position on the pitch (save for maybe ‘keeper).

Don’t lob him into midfield- why throw the baby out with the bathwater and shift a player who has done so much good at the back into midfield because he’s had a shaky run of form? Some have suggested he could play midfield because Spurs managed to do it with Eric Dier- while Dier is looking a pretty good midfielder, he won’t ever be as good a midfielder as Stones will be a centre half, not to mention the fact there’s no guarantee what’s worked for Dier would work out for Stones, either. Just because he has the physical attributes to make you think it might work doesn’t mean it will work. And why would we, anyway? He was the most coveted young centre half in the world for a reason- there’s more to suggest he’ll get back to that level, than there is to say his progress has plateaued. Anyone watching our last league game will know how high Arsenal pressed us up the pitch: not sure that’s the kind of thing we want to be throwing John Stones into, given how uncharacteristically unsure of his touch he’s been at times this season. If a young player comes into a side and looks as promising as Stones has- they’re as rare as can be. If a young player comes in, and they progress without any bumps in the road- without any dips in form, then they really are the absolute exception. These things happen. If we’re still talking about the same kinds of issues we’ve seen from Stones this season in a year from now, there’s another debate to be had. But until then, let him learn.

Sports psychologists will tell you about trying to make fear of failure non-existent, and how that can make the difference in a champion. Even when not playing well, Stones has tried to do the things that’ve gotten him this far. He’s continued to believe in himself when others have questioned him. Every master was once a beginner. I honestly believe the mistakes he’s made this year will be the making of him. Anyone daft enough to read my match reviews will know I too have been critical of Stones at times this season, and he’s rightfully out of the side at the moment. To me, it’s encouraging that he’s kept trying to do the ‘right things’- even when he hasn’t always been right, and it’s meant what he thinks have been the correct things to do have actually been the wrong things- but he will learn from it, and he will get better from it. I expect to see a very different Stones next year- regardless of who the manager is, back to his elegant best.

 

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None of this means we should accept poor form from him just because he’s young- again, he’s rightfully out of the side. He needs to make better decisions, and get better at the nitty-gritty of defending. It might be that he’ll always be a Piqué in need of his Puyol, but Stones does have improvements to make. We want to see more of a Dave Watson about him, but the ceiling of his potential talents is so unfathomably high, that if (when) he puts it all together, he’ll run this league. I’m not going to dwell on his issues too much, partly because I’ve already spoken about his weaknesses in the past, but also because there is so much more going for him than there is against him, and it’s high time we remembered it.

The last thing a struggling John Stones needs at the moment is to be thrust into an unfamiliar role in this side- going into midfield. The last thing this struggling side needs is a player trying to learn the ropes of a new position with (hopefully) two of the most important games of the last twenty years still to come. The league is a write-off, and there are decisions to be made about this manager- and some of his players, on the horizon, but now isn’t the time for experimentation- now is the time for playing our best side and doing everything we can to win the FA Cup: because it’s right there. It’s right there. If that means not playing Stones, then so be it. That doesn’t have any impact on him next year, nor for the next ten years: he’s still more likely to turn into the centre half we all hoped for. If we all recognised his ability when he was playing so well, why not take a leap of faith and believe he will go on to be the best centre half about, you know- the way we did last year? There’s already been more flip-flops on him than you’d find on a Benidorm pavement in mid-June, and if you can’t exercise patience with a young player learning on the job while he’s at his worst, you’re going to be a hypocrite a year from now when you’re sharing clips of him being sound, doing similar things that he’s being criticised for now- only when he’s making better decisions, having learned from this year. Let’s revisit it next year, and if things haven’t changed, then we can start to ask some serious questions.  Until then: don’t panic, Mr Mannering. Ross Barkley isn’t the only diamond in our midst.

You can find me here on Twitter for more questionable logic: https://twitter.com/EvertonMusings

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