England's new Stones Age
Ball-playing centre back is thriving under Pep and seems ready to rule for England
ENGLAND v MALTA
(Tomorrow, 11.50pm, Singtel TV Ch 109 -Eleven)
In a country where the style and grace of Bobby Moore still elicits deep admiration, the polarising effect John Stones continues to have on its football pundits is not surprising.
Centre back Moore, England's elegant 1966 World Cup-winning captain, is regarded as one of the country's finest footballers and Stones is a defender from the same ball-playing mould, who is regarded as an asset in some quarters, and a liability by vociferous detractors.
The Three Lions pine for the next Moore, but there only have ever been misses.
Rio Ferdinand came the closest to succeeding the West Ham giant who died in 1993 and Stones now represents England's best hope of producing the next Moore, more than four decades after his international retirement.
There is a sound argument that Stones, 22, is a victim of a football culture steeped in a belief that defenders must display grit, courage and industry above everything else.
It is why the likes of Terry Butcher, Tony Adams and John Terry are feted as the best of their respective generations.
But, like Moore, Stones shows off a superior football mind, reads the game astutely and is equipped with an admirable passing ability.
His ability to get attacks going from the back sets him apart.
Of course, such a playing style carries with it risk and doesn't go down well with the noisy brigade who argue the safety-first approach must always be a defender's priority.
But England must make a decision on Stones and there is no better window for change than in this new regime.
Tomorrow, they take on minnows Malta in their second 2018 World Cup qualifying Group F fixture, with Gareth Southgate in his first match in charge.
One of the most closely watched developments will be who Southgate, himself a technically solid centre half during his playing days, lines up at the back.
The responsibility of plotting the national team's rearguard direction has fallen on his lap.
His predecessor, Sam Allardyce, had given Stones the nod in his only match at the helm when England beat Slovakia 1-0 last month.
Southgate's contract with the Football Association (FA) will involve him leading England for the next four games, upon which a permanent manager - Southgate remains the bookmakers' favourite to be appointed on a long-term basis - will be named.
Even if the FA doesn't extend his stint beyond this year, his decisions will likely influence the path his successor will take.
Against Malta, Southgate has to pick centre backs from a pool comprising Stones, Gary Cahill, Chris Smalling, Phil Jagielka and Michael Keane.
Stones, the youngest of the lot, packs the greatest promise.
At Euro 2016, Roy Hodgson stuck to the Cahill-Smalling partnership, which was hardly convincing. Stones, who was part of that England squad, didn't play a single minute in the tournament.
The Barnsley academy graduate had just endured a difficult campaign at Everton, where the level of his displays plummeted during the second half of the last season.
He would later put his poor form down to "a lot of personal problems outside of football", while then-Everton manager Roberto Martinez's lack of emphasis on good defending didn't help, either.
Now, though, an opportune moment has arrived for Stones.
Since the £47.5-million ($82.6m) move to Manchester City, he has been demonstrating the kind of prowess that had Barcelona centre back Gerard Pique last year naming Stones alongside him in a glittering world 11 line-up that included Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar and Andres Iniesta.
In Pep Guardiola, he has a manager who demands his centre back play the role of attacking launchpad.
Stones fits the bill perfectly.
During pre-season, about a week before Stone's arrival was announced, Guardiola elaborated on how he wants his centre back to play.
The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach said: "Normally central defenders are strong in the air and aggressive, but we need a good build-up to create easy passes in midfield.
"That can achieve, later, good passes for our strikers.
"I believe if the ball goes from a central defender to a striker as quickly as possible, it comes back just as quickly.
"We need good build-up in the first process from the defenders and midfielders."
Guardiola's insistence on centre backs who distribute the ball as well as other outfield players had previously seen him deploy midfielders Javier Mascherano (Barcelona) and Javi Martinez (Bayern Munich) in the heart of defence.
Stones' fine displays for City have not gone unnoticed.
Ex-England manager Glen Hoddle called him a special player and the "main man" of the Premier League leaders' back four.
Ashley Williams, his replacement at Everton, believes Stones is on the way to becoming "one of the top centre backs in the world".
Stones himself is looking increasingly confident by the week, appearing at ease during England's press conferences before the Malta game and speaking in the assured tones of a veteran.
By all accounts he is ready to try and be Moore's natural successor, after all these years.
The ball is in England's court.