One of the top priorities of Pep Guardiola’s first transfer window in charge of Manchester City must surely be the signing of at least one quality, ball-playing centre half and it seems increasingly inevitable that Everton’s John Stones is going to be it.
The 22-year-old has reportedly told the Toffees that he wants to join Guardiola at City and all that remains is for the two clubs to come to an agreement over the transfer fee, which is thought to be in the eye-watering region of £50 million.
This time last year, Stones was considered one of the hottest prospects in English football amidst heavy speculation linking him with a move to Chelsea. That transfer eventually failed to materialise and a slightly iffy season at Goodison Park means expectations of the Barnsley-born defender have since been reined in somewhat.
City fans are rightly rather sceptical about the prospect of the club laying down another significant amount of money on a young centre back with plenty still to prove and the news hasn’t been greeted with the greatest amount of enthusiasm in Manchester.
We caught up with Lyndon Lloyd and Ed McCosh – two Evertonians who’ve watched Stones’ development closely over the past three seasons – to find out how the youngster is viewed on Merseyside and whether £50 million really is such an exorbitant amount of money for his services.
TC: When Stones was heavily linked with a move to Chelsea last summer, both the Everton board and the fans were desperate to keep hold of him but there seems to be much less by way of resistance this year. Is it a case of the reported £50 million City are going to pay for him being too good to turn down or is he not rated as highly at Goodison as he was this time last year?
LL: I think the reported transfer fee has a lot to do with it — even in today’s ridiculously inflated market, £50m is a LOT of money — but there’s also an element of fatigue among Evertonians where Stones is concerned because this is the second summer running in which he has been linked with a big money move away and, assuming the latest reports are true, he is actively pushing for it.
When he handed in his written transfer request last August, there was a feeling that he was a young lad buckling under pressure, responding to the prompting of his advisers, and that if we could keep him and enjoy a successful season then he might look back and see that he made the right decision by staying.
It ended up being a terrible campaign during which Stones had his struggles along with the team as a whole but I think the majority of Everton supporters acknowledge that he is still 22 and has plenty of time and room to grow. Him seemingly wanting out again without giving the new manager a chance means that an air of resignation and wanting it done quickly is setting in now.
EM: I think the willingness to let Stones go is endemic of Evertonians’ severe dislike for players who don’t want to be at Everton as much as we do. Actively opposing Stones’ departure last summer was more a case of spiting Mourinho and Chelsea than anything, but Stones did not come around during the season and decide Everton was where he wanted to stay as Leighton Baines did a couple of years ago. While we are loathe to sell our best players, something that hasn’t really happened since the sale of Mikel Arteta to Arsenal (Yes, Fellaini, but he was never worth £27.5m anyway), a lot of Toffees fans will be saying “good riddance” to the England youngster.
TC: After last season, the general consensus amongst non-Everton fans and the media seems to be that Stones perhaps isn’t as good as everyone initially thought. Was he that poor last season? How much of it do you think had to do with the fact he was playing in a team which wasn’t performing particularly well?
EM: Stones suffered in a system that did not protect the centre backs, especially with the wayward James McCarthy offering no cover, and was unfairly harangued at times by the fans for his unwillingness to hoof the ball out of play rather than play it out under pressure. Nevertheless, there was a feeling Stones regressed last season. His marking and awareness were shoddy and far too often he was forced into last-ditch tackles to cover his own errors. All the basics of defending aren’t there, which is perhaps why one of his better performances of the season was when he was pushed into midfield against Norwich in the Capital One Cup. He is as good as everyone first thought, but he did very little last season to prove it.
LL: When the team is conceding goals, giving up leads and generally throwing away what most of us felt was a golden opportunity to finally crack the top four again, it’s difficult to perform at your best, particularly if you’re a defender. The frustration with Roberto Martinez’s management was palpable at Goodison last season and it was clear that the likes of Stones and Ross Barkley struggled in that atmosphere.
One of the biggest fears about Martinez when he was first appointed was his defensive record at Wigan and those concerns were eventually realised so there’s much to be said for the argument that John just wasn’t being coached properly.
He looked to be getting back to form in the latter stages of the campaign even though the team’s record as a whole over the last quarter of 2015-16 was awful and many Evertonians feel that he will be a top-class player under the right management. The Martinez regime clearly wasn’t it. He was encouraged to take risks and be the natural, ball-playing centre-half he clearly is but often it didn’t seem like he was being corrected for making mistakes or simply hitting “row Z” when the situation demanded it.
TC: The thing that sticks in a lot of people’s minds about Stones last season was the time he exchanged a few words with some of your fans behind the goal after being a bit too casual in his own box. What was that about? Is it something we can expect to see a lot of if he comes to City?
LL: After he ended up remaining at Goodison Park because Martinez dug his heels in, fans responded by giving him their full support, not least because we knew that we managed to keep hold of a very good player who could have formed the bedrock of our defence for the next decade.
That support wasn’t unconditional, though, and whether it was due to the player himself or a reflection of Martinez’s permissive management style, Stones’ actions on the field didn’t always seem to be in sync with the frustration among the supporters, particularly after November last year when things really started to unravel.
He came under criticism from some of the fans for mistakes and over-elaboration in dangerous areas at the back which came to a head in that home game against Tottenham where he executed a number of “Cruyff turns” in his own six-yard box rather than simply “getting rid”.
He got away with it — hence his “calm down” signal to the Gwladys Street End — but Everton supporters had seen enough late goals and points given up, particularly at Goodison, that they didn’t appreciate Stones taking unnecessary risks.
EM: Everton fans are naturally impatient, and there are far too many whose tactical preferences are stuck in yesteryear, when defenders were expected to head or hoof the ball clear from their goal. Stones is a cocksure young centre back and in times of hardship for Everton it came across as arrogance. Giving the ‘calm down’ motion to the fans during a heated exchange in the dying embers of a home draw with Spurs betrayed his emotions somewhat. City fans are known more for getting frustrated with defending incompetence rather than a centre back who wants to run with the ball, so Stones would most likely expect a better reception at the Etihad.
TC: What would you define as his strengths?
LL: Undoubtedly his comfort on the ball, and his seemingly unflappable nature when in possession. Romelu Lukaku described him last season as the best passer of the ball in the team which is why there are many Everton supporters who think he could operate quite effectively in the defensive midfield role that Nemanja Matic fulfils at Chelsea.
EM: First of all, John Stones is better on the ball than almost every defender in the Premier League, and a large swathe of midfielders. His close control and balance made for some graceful dribbling at times, though mostly past the clumsy advances of opposing strikers rather than seasoned defenders. He times a tackle better than most as well; there’s good business for those making YouTube compilations of excellent sliding challenges.
TC: And his weaknesses?
LL: His positional sense needs work and he is not as strong in the air, particularly at set-pieces, as he could be. Both of those can be worked on, though, particularly his suspect positional awareness which was exposed for the third and decisive goal in our ill-fated Capital One Cup semi-final second leg at the Etihad in January.
EM: Stones just hasn’t learned the basics, and while we hoped a year with Ronald Koeman would iron out those flaws, it seems Stones is ready to continue his education elsewhere. Too often beaten in the air, too often slow to realise the player he is meant to mark has moved, Stones is in charge of the game with the ball at his feet but lagging behind when under the cosh.
TC: And finally, £50 million is obviously a heinous amount of money to pay for a young player with a lot still to prove, but in your opinion, just how much will City be getting ripped off if the deal goes through?
LL: Even accounting for the recent inflation and the premium placed on homegrown players, he quite clearly isn’t worth half the £50m price being reported. However, if he becomes the player that many Blues believe he will, then I think it will be money well spent over the long term and won’t be seen as a rip-off.
Many regard his potential transfer to City in the same light as Rio Ferdinand’s move to Man United from Leeds all those years ago and Stones could have as lasting and impactful a career at the Etihad as Ferdinand.
He is well-grounded and mature for his comparatively young age — he just needs the right manager. We obviously feel that Ronald Koeman, as the best ball-playing centre half of his era, would be just the man but if John wants to move now to play in the Champions League under Pep Guardiola, then so be it. His fee will provide Everton with plenty of capital to replace him.
EM: Seeing as we’ve made City pay £36m for Joleon Lescott and Jack Rodwell, even £50m doesn’t sound like a rip-off. The money would not be buying the finished article, but it’s an investment. Guardiola, and most likely his successor, would have 10 years to mould a precocious young centre back into one of the most talented defenders this country has ever seen. The potential is there in John Stones, and if the deal goes through it will be up to City (and of course Stones, who must keep his feet firmly on the ground) to ensure that they get their money’s worth.
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Interview by Dan Burke