Stones embodying England’s new attitude under Gareth Southgate
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