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15th Oct 2016

John Stones has all the potential in the world but he remains very much a work in progress

Plenty of work yet to be done

Tony Barrett

Ever since he burst onto the scene at Everton, it seemed pre-ordained that John Stones would go on to become a symbol of English football and in a way he has as he is yet to find a way of bridging the gap between potential and performance.

In theory, Stones is a world beater, a defender capable of carrying the ball from one end of the pitch to the other with majestic ease. In practice, he remains a fragile talent, one who has yet to fully comprehend the need for substance to be allied with style.

Everton, the club he left in the summer, are as aware of that as anyone. Before renewing acquaintance with their former player at the Etihad Stadium this afternoon, Ronald Koeman had observed the necessary niceties, admitting that “one of the qualities of Stones is he is that player at the back who opens the game.” Then came the kicker as the Everton manager identified that his team would have the opportunity to take advantage of the space that would be left “behind at the back.” It wasn’t exactly a backhanded compliment but nor was it a warning to his own team that they would get little change out of Stones.

Koeman’s tactical approach was established immediately as Everton sat deep, sending long balls forward whenever possible with Romelu Lukaku pushing onto Stones rather than Nicolas Otamendi. Initally, it looked like this could be a productive strategy, particularly when Lukaku comfortably defeated Stones in the air to open up the very kind of space that Koeman had predicted would be available. The problem was having identified a potential weakness, Everton were unable to exploit it anywhere near as often as they would have liked.

It is in the kind of environment that Stones now finds himself that his talent makes most sense, both to himself and to his team.

Defensively, he remains a work in progress but that was always going to be much more of an issue at Everton than it is at Manchester City. Surrounded by so many accomplished players and working to a game plan that involves dominance of territory and possession, there are not many better places for a ball playing centre back to develop than in a team coached by Pep Guardiola.

Manchester City v Everton - Premier League

As Stones used his instep to cushion a dropping ball with all the delicacy of a master of his art, his manager led the applause that rippled around the stadium. In the build up, Guardiola had likened Stones to Koeman, his former team mate at Barcelona, and it is such demonstrations of technical ability that make sense of such comparisons even if the 22-year-old does not yet deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as one of the game’s modern greats given the disparity in their achievements.

At times, City’s dominance was such that Stones was able to step into midfield, playing adroit passes around his opponents and making himself available for the return. It all looked too easy and it probably was as City’s control led to complacency after Maarten Stekelenburg had saved Kevin De Bruyne’s poorly taken penalty. Chances became harder to come by and although Everton were spending long spells camped in and around their own box, moments of genuine danger were few and far between.

Tellingly, Everton were performing with a level of collective defensive discipline that they had rarely attained with Stones in their ranks and in doing so they created an opportunity for themselves to snatch a victory that should have been most unlikely given the gulf in class between the two teams.

That it was made increasingly possible by Lukaku’s sixth goal in his last five matches owed much to their own growing sense of confidence and the poor decision making which can undermine Stones.

Manchester City v Everton - Premier League

There should have been no threat to City’s goal when Everton played the ball towards the halfway line but Stones committed himself too early and too high up the pitch. Yannick Bolasie got to the ball in front of him, flicking it on to Lukaku who, left with only Gael Clichy and Claudio Bravo to beat, was not troubled by either on his way to doing what comes naturally to him.

“It’s a learning curve and one of the most important lessons you have to learn is that you can’t afford to take unnecessary chances,” Alan Hansen once said of Stones but the England international’s propensity for taking risks that others wouldn’t is yet to be eradicated at City. On this occasion it did not prove fatal as Nolito’s goal earned City a point after Sergio Aguero had missed another penalty but Stones remains a work in progress, albeit one who doesn’t lack polish.

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