Yesterday, Manchester City officially announced the £47.5m signing of John Stones from Everton, raising a few eyebrows as to wether the English centre back is worth such a hefty fee. Less than 24 hours later, Everton replaced their talismanic defender with the signing of Wales captain Ashley Williams from Swansea, for a fee thought to be in the region of £12m.
There’s no question that the fee City paid for Stones is astronomical, making him the most expensive English defender in history, and the second most expensive defender behind PSG’s £50m capture of David Luiz from Chelsea. But is Stones worth the money? It’s fair to say that City probably overpaid, given the premium placed on English players and Everton’s stubborn refusal to let their CB go for anything less than a substantial fee, but if Guardiola can get the best out of Stones, they may well look back on the purchase as money well spent.
Just to put the fee into perspective, just four years ago Stones was fighting to get into Barnsley’s first team, and now he’s playing for one of the greatest managers in modern history, marking the pinnacle of a meteoric rise into the footballing spotlight. Stones has long been thought of as one of the finest prospects in English football, with ex-England striker Michael Owen even going so far as to claim he could ‘walk into the Barcelona team‘. There’s no doubt Stones is a talented player, and the sort of centre back that English football rarely produces. He’s very quick and strong in the air, but what really sets him apart is his ability to bring the ball out from the back – starting attacking moves with precise passing and an unnerving willingness to run out of defence with the ball.
It is this ability that has undoubtedly brought him to the attention of new City boss Guardiola, who’s all-conquering Barcelona team always played the ball out from defence, with attacks being started by the goalkeeper and all 11 players being comfortable in possession of the ball. No ‘if in doubt, kick it out’ for Guardiola’s men. But some believe Stones is guilty of overplaying in defence, particularly last season when mistakes from the young defender cost Everton crucial points – the 4-3 loss to Stoke being a pertinent example. These mistakes, and his reluctance to ‘hoof’ the ball out of defence, had led to a certain level of nervousness among Everton players and fans during certain games, and are likely the main reason Stones spent Euro 2016 sat on the bench.
But of all the managers on the planet, Pep is the one who can surely bring out the best in Stones, and potentially make him one of England’s greatest defenders – even issuing in a new era of the English centre back. Guardiola will encourage Stones’s natural ability and willingness to bring the ball out from the back, unlike Martinez perhaps did at Everton, and will not chastise any mistakes made by the young defender. Pep will allow Stones to play his natural game, knowing that a mistake may cost you a goal, but the ability of the CB to play out could lead to many more goals and make Manchester City a better team in the long run.
It’s no secret that Pep wanted a ball-playing central defender who is comfortable bringing out possession from the back, particularly given the injury-ridden career of Vincent Kompany and the so-so performances of Mangala and Otimendi, both of whom cost the previous managerial incumbent a significant amount in transfer fees.
It remains to be seen how well Stones will settle at Manchester City, but there can be no doubt that’s he’s in the right place, with a manager who will encourage his desire to play the game in a certain way. So while we’re all trying to get away from our other halves to watch the games this weekend, I’ll be watching the Manchester City defence with a closer eye than most. You can keep your Ibrahimovic’s and Batshuayhi’s, I’ll be far more interested in the back four of the blue side of Manchester.