Neil Humphreys: Why Stones must step up
Great English hope needs to reach his Champions League peak
At his best, John Stones doesn’t run. He glides.
If he played the game on broken glass, he’d emerge with not a scratch on his feet.
The Manchester City centre back gives the impression that he defends with a cigar in his hand and a monkey on his back.
He’s the great hope of English defending, swaggering out of the box in the shadow of Bobby Moore and Rio Ferdinand.
He’s one of them. He’s a ball-playing centre back, a bit of a freak show in a black-and-white world of absolutes, where he’s championed for every raking pass and crucified for every overblown mistake.
Stones must feel like he’s the oldest 23-year-old in world football.
He deals with being the best of his English generation, whilst forever being told that he’s about to become the best in the world.
And then he fluffs a clearance and he’s rubbish; an overhyped luxury that English football cannot afford to indulge.
City’s trip to Basel on Wednesday morning (Singapore time) will again highlight the curious case that is John Stones, a centre back who is either world-class or woeful, a victim of the sharp vicissitudes of EPL life.
Spain or Brazil would love John Stones. They’d accept that the odd stray pass was a small price to pay for such defensive confidence.
England still isn’t entirely sure what to make of Stones.
Before Christmas, he was the Second Coming of Moore, an elegant captain for club and country in waiting.
In October, Stones had a better pass success rate (96.7 per cent) than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues.
But in the same month, he participated in another dire England performance, a tedious 1-0 trudge past Slovenia that tested the patience of all concerned.
He wasn’t the strutting peacock at City, just another tentative Englishman straitjacketed by the Three Lions jersey.
Why can’t he do all that fancy stuff in an England jersey?
The obvious answer is Pep Guardiola. The City manager demands calm, competent distribution from all his centre backs.
His counter-attacking begins at the back, with Gerard Pique at Barcelona, Jerome Boateng at Bayern Munich and now Stones at City.
So the Englishman’s pathway from potential to proven pedigree should be clear, theoretically, but that’s not really been the case.
First there was the hamstring injury in November. Then there was the sudden knee injury before the draw with Burnley and an unrelated illness which ruled Stones out of the West Brom game.
Since then, he’s struggled for form. His confidence took a further hit when City spent £57 million (S$104.6m) on Aymeric Laporte, who’s now seen as a direct challenger to Stones’ position, such is the fickle nature of English football.
One minute he finds himself on the cusp of becoming the world’s finest centre back. The next he’s not even the best centre back in City’s dressing room.
But Stones must accept a smidgeon of responsibility.
City fans turned on him after a poor display against Bristol City in the League Cup and he was also at fault for Liverpool’s second goal in the 4-3 loss.
City’s slight dip in defensive form – it’s hardly a crisis, but they are conceding a goal almost every game – hints at their supposed lack of solidity.
Or, more specifically, the goals allegedly hint at Stones’ vulnerability, which might say more about his environment than his own deficiencies.
Ball-playing centre backs seem to bring out the worst cliches in English football. Stones doesn’t know when to "get rid"… He plays too many Hollywood passes … He’s great going forward, but a liability at the back.
And then, Pique or Thiago Silva play in a similar fashion and the same critics lament English football’s inability to produce centre backs of similar class.
Attacking endeavour requires risk, a risk that Stones - and Guardiola - are willing to take. More often than not, City have benefitted as a result.
Stones may never entirely silence his critics, but he could appease them in the Champions League, the perfect stage for his attacking panache.
Against Basel, he'll be afforded a chance to direct play from the back.
His time to shine in Europe must be now.
Ferdinand was an England regular at 22. Moore captained his country at the same age and lifted the World Cup three years later.
Stones will be 24 in May. If he wants to be considered in a league of his own, he’s got to own the Champions League.