Stones em­body­ing England’s new at­ti­tude un­der Gareth South­gate

Malta Independent - - SPORT -

Gareth South­gate’s four-game spell as England’s interim man­ager will end at full time of to­day’s in­ter­na­tional friendly against Spain at Wem­b­ley Sta­dium.

What­ever fate be­falls South­gate - and the like­li­hood is he’ll soon be handed the job on a full-time ba­sis - he has al­ready made a sig­nif­i­cant im­print on the team.

One of the key prin­ci­ples South­gate has stamped on the national side in his five weeks tem­po­rar­ily in charge has been an in­sis­tence on play­ing the ball out from the back - an ap­proach that is slowly per­vad­ing the English Premier League but can some­times be viewed with skep­ti­cism by the English public.

“I want us to be brave with the ball,” South­gate said last month in some of his first words in the job. “I want to see an England team that is brave in pos­ses­sion of the ball and pre­pared to take chances, pre­pared to take risks in one ver­sus one sit­u­a­tions, even though I know they won’t al­ways suc­ceed in those mo­ments.”

In de­fender John Stones, South­gate has a player who em­bod­ies this at­ti­tude.

Stones is a ball-play­ing cen­tre back who moved to Manch­ester City in Au­gust for £47.5 mil­lion, mak­ing him the sec­ond-most ex­pen­sive de­fender in foot­ball his­tory. He fit the bill for new City coach Pep Guardi­ola, who likes his teams to have de­fend­ers who are com­fort­able on the ball and can start at­tacks from the back.

South­gate is sim­i­lar in that re­gard and adopted a sim­i­lar play­ing style as man­ager of England’s un­der-21 squad, so it’s no won­der he has made Stones the cen­tre­piece of England’s de­fence in his brief time in charge of the se­nior team.

England hasn’t con­ceded a goal thus far un­der South­gate, although the op­po­nents have been medi­ocre at best in Malta, Slo­vakia and Scot­land.

Spain will of­fer a much tougher test. As masters of play­ing the ball out from the back, the Span­ish will also serve as a good ex­am­ple to their England coun­ter­parts of how to ex­e­cute such an ap­proach.

Some have even com­pared the play of the 22-year-old Stones to that of Spain de­fender Ger­ard Pique, who will miss to­day’s game be­cause of an an­kle in­jury.

In the 3-0 win over Scot­land on Fri­day, Stones’ de­ter­mi­na­tion to play out from the back saw him give the ball away in a dan­ger­ous po­si­tion early on. He also took per­haps un­nec­es­sary risks around the edge of his own box in an at­tempt to beat Scot­land’s high press.

At the start of the year, Stones then play­ing for Ever­ton - per­formed three Cruyff turns around his box while be­ing chal­lenged for the ball in a Premier League match against Tot­ten­ham. He earned a free kick and gave a “calm down” ges­ture to the fans who were au­di­bly un­nerved by Stones’ risk-tak­ing. It’s the only way he knows. “It’s un­der­stand­able that peo­ple will say things about the way I play, that some peo­ple aren’t go­ing to like me,” Stones said last month. “But this is how I want to play.”

Given his style, Stones will al­ways make er­rors. One of them oc­curred in a 1-1 draw against Southamp­ton last month when his pass to a team­mate at the edge of City’s area was in­ter­cepted by Nathan Red­mond, who scored.

There’s also a con­cern that when play­ing for his national team, Stones doesn’t have a goal­keeper or the de­fen­sive play­ers along­side him with strong enough tech­nique and com­po­sure to en­sure that play­ing out from the back is the right op­tion

South­gate isn’t for wa­ver­ing, though. He be­lieves Stones can have as suc­cess­ful a ca­reer as Pique and Ger­many cen­tre backs Mats Hum­mels and Jerome Boateng, and that Stones needs en­cour­age­ment rather than crit­i­cism.

“For years, we’ve talked about not be­ing able to play out from the back,” South­gate said of the England psy­che. “If we’re to be dif­fer­ent, if we’re to progress, then we have to en­cour­age play­ers.

“What we’ve got to re­mem­ber is he’s 22. In cen­tral de­fen­sive terms, it’s noth­ing. If we want to have a Hum­mels, a Boateng, a Pique ... I think he’s got the per­fect man­ager (in Guardi­ola) to work with and to hone, and for all of our de­fend­ers, that’s what we want to en­cour­age.”

Italy’s An­drea Belotti, left, cel­e­brates after scor­ing in the 4-0 win against Liecht­en­stein Photo: AP

England’s interim man­ager Gareth South­gate ap­plauds dur­ing the match against Scot­land

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