Four summers ago John Stones was targeting a regular place in Barnsley’s first team – now the England centre-back has become the second most expensive defender in history.
Manchester City have paid a fee of £47.5m to sign the 22-year-old from Premier League rivals Everton.
Is he worth it? What exactly have City got for their huge outlay? And will the big-money move help cement Stones’ place as a regular for his country?
‘England don’t usually develop defenders like Stones’
For one of Europe’s leading clubs to be willing to pay £47.5m for your services, you must be pretty special.
Stones has long been regarded as one of English football’s finest prospects. Former England striker Gary Lineker believes the Barnsley academy graduate has “got it all”, while Michael Owen claimed he could “walk into the Barcelona team”.
So what exactly has he ‘got’?
“He’s got scorching, absolutely coruscating, pace. He’s good in the air,” says Pat Nevin, the former Everton and Scotland winger.
“But his biggest asset is that he can come out of defence comfortably with the ball. England don’t regularly develop defenders who can play like that.”
Soon after the tall youngster arrived at Goodison Park, following a £3m switch from his hometown club in January 2013, most Everton fans realised their club had bagged a rare talent.
“He’s just so classy and confident,” says John Brettell, chairman of the Everton Supporters’ Club’s north-east branch.
“What has impressed the Everton fans the most is his calmness. He never looks flustered. I’ve never seen him panic.”
However, Stones’ move to two-time Premier League champions City comes on the back of a season where he struggled for consistency.
“Stones suffered from playing under Roberto Martinez’s management in an Everton side where good defending was almost regarded as optional, allied to a dip in form that often afflicts younger players,” says Phil McNulty, BBC Sport’s chief football writer.
“In stronger coaching hands, at least defensively and with greater emphasis on positioning, there is every chance the defender perfectly suited to all aspects of the modern game – one with pace, vision, aerial ability and timing in the tackle – will be back.”
Is he guilty of ‘overplaying’ at the back?
While many former players have lauded Stones for his calm and relaxed approach to defending, his reluctance to hoof the ball clear when under pressure led to criticism from some Everton supporters last season.
That conflict became most visible when Stones gestured to his own fans to ‘calm down’ towards the end of their league draw against Tottenham – moments after dribbling out of his own area with the help of three Cruyff turns.
“Stones was arguably a victim of Martinez’s indulgence, where he was almost actively encouraged to stick rigidly to his natural ball-playing style at any cost rather than adopt a more risk-averse approach,” adds McNulty.
“This led to nervousness, not just in Stones but Everton’s supporters – and consequently mistakes.”
But City fans should not panic if the centre-back does make the odd error this season, says Nevin.
“If you don’t allow him to make mistakes he will not develop,” he added. “It can be hard to take sometimes because you lose points.
“Every top centre-back in European football who brings the ball out makes the odd mistake because they’re taking a chance.
“But the upside to that is managers like Pep Guardiola say: ‘Take the ball out from the back, you might lose one goal a season, but you might provide seven or eight goals from a move that started with you.’
“There will still be mistakes by him at Manchester City – but you have got to stick with him.”
Why was Guardiola desperate to sign him?
City splashed out a combined £64m on a pair of new centre-backs in the previous two summer transfer windows, signing both France international Eliaquim Mangala and Argentina’s Nicolas Otamendi for £32m apiece.
And they also have influential captain Vincent Kompany at their disposal.
So why do they need Stones?
New boss Pep Guardiola was desperate for a ball-playing central defender who is comfortable at bringing out possession from the back.
Neither Mangala nor Otamendi have looked completely comfortable during their time in England, while 30-year-old Belgium international Kompany continues to struggle with various injuries.
“Normally central defenders are strong in the air and aggressive – but we need a good build-up to create easy passes in midfield,” former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach Guardiola said before last week’s friendly against Borussia Dortmund.
“That can achieve, later, good passes for our strikers. I believe if the ball goes from a central defender to a striker as quickly as possible, it comes back just as quickly. We need good build-up in the first process from the defenders and midfielders.
“That is why we need players of quality in the centre. By 31 August we will have the right squad to play like we want.”
BBC Sport’s Simon Stone:
Going back to Yaya Toure at Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final, through Javier Mascherano and then Javi Martinez at Bayern Munich, Guardiola has used midfield players in central defence.
Generally, he feels their ball distribution is sharper and more accurate, creating the base from which momentum can be built.
Like Rio Ferdinand in the modern era, John Stones is an Englishman capable of transcending both roles.
Of the players he currently has at his disposal, Fernandinho and Fernando are the players Guardiola has identified for it.
In the pre-season friendly against Dortmund, Fernandinho dropped into the middle of a back three. You could see the plan.
Is Stones really worth nearly £50m?
Is any footballer worth that amount of money? A regular response to questions about whether record-breaking signings should be bought for such astronomical fees.
But that is the price City were willing to pay for a young international defender who has not yet made 100 Premier League appearances.
However, as Nevin rightly points out, the Blues are not paying for what he has done so far in his career – they are largely paying for what he can potentially bring over the coming years.
“He’s only 22 so if he stays at City for 10 years that’s £5m a year,” he says.
“It’s a big number, but when you’re buying youth and someone who will have a sell-on value in five years’ time, it is still good money.
“I’d suggest he is worth the money.”
Will move help cement England spot?
Although Stones’ capabilities have long been raved about by several former England players – most notably Lineker and Owen – his international career is yet to fully take off.
He was part of the England squad humiliated at Euro 2016 when they were beaten by minnows Iceland at the last-16 stage. However, Stones did not play a single minute of the tournament in France.
Since making his debut against Peru in May 2014, he has only gone on to win nine more caps.
But Stones moving to City under Guardiola is also “good news” for his country, says former England skipper Terry Butcher.
“From England’s point of view he is international class,” Butcher, who won 77 caps between 1980 and 1990, told BBC Radio 5 live.
“England have struggled with distribution from the back in recent years, they have not had a ball-playing centre half since Rio Ferdinand. These sort of players don’t come along too often.
“Stones has the whole world at his feet.”
Why didn’t Chelsea or Man Utd try to sign him?
From the outside it appeared Manchester City had little competition for Stones.
Chelsea tried – and failed – to lure him to Stamford Bridge last summer, with three bids of £20m, £26m and £30m rejected by Everton.
At the time the Blues were managed by Jose Mourinho, who was sacked in December before Italy coach Antonio Conte took over this summer.
However, Nevin can understand why neither Conte nor Mourinho, who has since taken over at arch rivals Manchester United, challenged City for his signature.
“Conte possibly won’t play with the three centre-backs this season, certainly in pre-season he has played 4-4-2,” says the former Chelsea winger.
“But if he wants to play with a different system, like he has done with Italy and Juventus, he may need different things.
“He might not be looking for players who are absolutely comfortable going out with the ball. He might be looking for great markers, great defenders and then move it from the players, like Cesc Fabregas for example, who can play it.
“With Mourinho, it’s not about whether he rates him any more or not.
“Everybody wants all the best players, but if you’ve got one big-name signing you need to make – in Manchester United’s case it was [Paul] Pogba – then you’ve probably not got enough money.”
How will Everton cope without him?
In an age where power-wielding players often force through their desired moves, Everton’s refusal to allow Stones to go to Chelsea last summer was a refreshing stance.
But it seemed inevitable he would leave Goodison Park this summer – until Iranian billionaire Farhad Moshiri bought a 49.9% stake in the Toffees.
Everton’s new-found wealth, coupled with the appointment of Ronald Koeman – himself once one of the world’s finest centre-halves – led to some optimistic Blues fans hoping they could cling on to their prized asset.
“Before Koeman was appointed we were quite resigned to losing one – or more – of Stones, Romelu Lukaku or Ross Barkley,” adds Brettell.
“But when he arrived, as someone who was a top-class defender, I definitely thought there might be a chance Stones would stay.
“It is disappointing to lose a player of that quality – but from a supporter’s point of view these players are just commodities.
“We paid for £3m for him and he has gone £50m – that’s great business.
“Maybe Koeman has players in mind to buy with that money who might be even better who knows.”
‘He always wanted to learn’
In Guardiola, a wonderfully gifted defensive midfielder in his playing days for Barcelona and Spain, Stones has one of the best coaches in the world to learn from.
And in his early days at Barnsley, he always showed a willingness to listen, ask questions and improve.
“In training when he was playing against a big striker like myself he used to ask me what was best thing to do,” says former Tykes team-mate Marlon Harewood.
“When he should fight them, when he should be more patient, when he should make the tackle and not to make the tackle.
“I wanted to help him but it wasn’t good for me in training because he always knew what I was going to do! He learned really quickly and he was always keen to learn.”
Not only have City signed an elegant centre-back, they have also signed a man who is also impressive off the pitch, adds the former Nottingham Forest, West Ham and Aston Villa player.
“He’s class, so down to earth,” he said. “He is a gentleman. He wasn’t quiet, he joined in with the banter with the lads.
“He won’t be fazed by the transfer fee or by the big-name players in the City dressing room. He’ll fit straight in.
“He was one of those young players who you knew would go right to the top of the game.”
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