John Stones has remained firmly in the crosshairs of the English media’s vilification machine ever since he arrived in Manchester during Pep Guardiola’s £200m spending spree that preceded the 2016/17 season.
The constructive criticism that should be expected from the press has shifted to a more sinister hatred for Stones. But, why? He’s one of our finest talents, a fantastic leader, and Pep reckons he’s got big balls. Martí Perarnau, author of “Pep Confidential”, claimed he could “develop like Pique” if he continues alongside skipper Vincent Kompany.
But his name is rapidly, and unfairly, becoming synonymous with defensive instability – largely due to several high profile mistakes and the far-too-quick judgement of Premier League fans, which were speedy to give the defender the “he’s shit” label after a few casual viewings. And it’s unfair.
Stones’ potential, showcased initially at Barnsley and later at Everton, is the primary cause for his criticism. He’s a victim of typical off-the-scale excitement surrounding English prospects, leading to impossible expectations. So, any early showings of mistakes, inexperience, or simply not being the English version of Fabio Cannavaro quickly led to overreaction from fans. Fans, who, instead of understanding the complexity of a young players’ learning curve, only observe two states in which a footballer can reside: they are brilliant, or terrible. There is no in between when making a judgement on an English player. In his time with City and England, the public deemed Stones to be closer to the latter end of the scale and therefore became, in the eyes of many, an outright liability.
Although this disappointment-fueled hatred can be blamed on frustration regarding damaged national pride, the elephant in the room concerning Stones and several of his England compatriots is their price tag. Guardiola shelled out around £50 million for the 22-year-old, which of course sparked nationwide controversy. Middle aged men across the country were outraged upon learning of the fee and proceeded to view his first performances in sky blue with extra-critical eyes.
The criticism is because of the transfer, like several before it, served as a reminder of football’s inflated market. This change hasn’t been met with enthusiasm from football fans, who have grown more and more concerned with the increasing fees that particular loaded Saudi Arabian multi-billionaire directors are paying to their loaded Iranian multi-billionaire director friends. And now, whenever Stones misplaces a pass or gives away a cheap foul, the mistake is seen to be that much worse, the disappointment that much greater. This isn’t his fault. He didn’t ask for that. He certainly didn’t ask for Sheikh Mansour to pay upwards of 50 million pounds for his talents, but that’s what happened. And for some reason, Stones is taking the blame.
But Stones’ arrival on the big stage has also signalled a different change within the English game. British defenders are moving away from the familiar “hard man” image, and aren’t being tasked with booting the ball into row Z at every opportunity. Instead, the FA are starting to prioritise technical ability within young defenders in a very English fashion – that is, about 14 years after the Germans and Spanish did it – in an attempt to adapt to the modern game.
This is unfamiliar to English football fans, who would always prefer their typical “no nonsense” centre back to play it safe and take no risks. Their attitude to a change in this area is best summed up by Sam Allardyce calling “tippy tappy” football “a load of bollocks”.
I’m in favour of this evolution. Having watched Aleksandar Kolarov for the last seven years, I’m no stranger to a Cruyff-turn in defence. Stones is the first player to try and break the stereotype of English defenders and attempt to move forward and become a more well-rounded footballer as part of a balanced system.
To hate John Stones because of his fearless approach to defending is to discredit one of England’s finest young talents. He’s brave, incredibly talented, and willing to take risks. And for that, he should be revered, not ridiculed.