Everton 3 – 1 Chelsea
It is becoming harder to imagine John Stones ever getting flustered. As the challenges thrown at the ice cool 21 year-old increase, so too it seems his confidence and composure. As Everton comfortably dispatched of Chelsea in Saturday’s lunchtime kick-off, the England defender tipped for the brightest of futures was at his most assured.
It was an impressive display of maturity from the Barnsley boy. The glare of the footballing world has shone brightly in his direction in recent weeks and when it’s Jose Mourinho and an inconceivable amount of money courting your attention, a hint of distraction could have been forgiven.
Whereas the news agenda moves and forgets quickly, such exposure and spotlight can linger a little longer for one not far removed from his teenage years and still yet to register 80 senior league games.
Those in search of a wobble against the champions were looking in the wrong place.
Stones marshalled the Toffees backline and the threat of Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and co with a conviction and ease that justified – and no doubt inflated – the £40m transfer figure with which he is now spoken of.
Like the talented kid seemingly going through the motions in the playground, Everton’s number five can appear to barely exert himself whilst proving to be by far the most effective presence.
Highly refined technical skills and an unflappable character allow the youngster to excel at receiving the ball short from goalkeeper Tim Howard and prompting Everton’s intelligent build-up play from the back. Stones and Howard have a trusting connection.
Receiving the ball yards from your own goal and when faced with the attentions of baying attackers is enough to fill most defenders with dread. Especially, when one of those hunting for your blood is the hulking presence of Diego Costa.
Stones displays no such fear. The defender routinely received the ball inside and around his own box, tempting in an opposing forward before casually stroking the ball into Everton’s deep-lying midfield pair of Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, both of whom receive and play forward adeptly. There was no aimless lumping of the ball forward here.
The precision and confidence with which the England international plays out from the back allowed the hosts to control possession in central areas, prompting patient passing moves through the thirds of the pitch. Similarly, Stones was also the source of numerous quick transitions.
The difference in the effectiveness of the Stones, McCarthy and Barry connection was in marked comparison to Chelsea’s attempts at fluency when playing out from the back. Describing it as an off-day for Mourinho’s men would be to let them off lightly.
The young defender’s Cruyff turn inside his own six-yard box which bewildered the attempts of Pedro to nullify Everton’s passing at source, simply served to underline his comfort amidst such footballing company.
Although the turn made the headlines, there was a more impressive demonstration of technique. If his first thought to pass is ever negated by the opposition’s defensive arrangement, the Rio Ferdinand prototype will simply step forward with the ball until the picture changes and he can slide a pass into the feet of a teammate.
During the first-half the defender sashayed passed three Chelsea players, gliding into midfield before sliding a pass into the attacking third. The best kid in the playground barely played a long pass all afternoon.
It can be easy to forget that the main element of Jones Stones’ job description concerns defending. In description, the defender’s in possession abilities often supersede talk of disrupting the opposition . Such introductions say much about Martinez’s preference for intelligent build-up play but also how the product of Barnsley’s youth system appears to defend in disguise.
The much coveted defender prefers interception, intelligent positioning and pinching the ball from the toes of attackers rather than last-ditch tackles and a physical fight with an opponent.
It’s the modern art of defending and the perfect foil for his partnership with the more combative Phil Jagielka. When his fellow England defender competed in the air with Costa, Stones slipped away behind the battle to pick up any loose balls and begin another attacking move with his slick passing.
With fifteen minutes left the England defender went to field a stray Chelsea through pass. With the visitors’ substitute Falcao for close attention Stones shaped to strike the ball long. With the Colombian’s back turned for protection, Stones simply let the ball roll across him and through to Howard. Falcao should have known better.
Whoever gets, or keeps, these stones will be getting a diamond.