There was a time, early in Gareth Southgate’s reign as England manager, when he made a point of telling his players that if they were not appearing for their club sides they could not expect to hold down their positions in the national team either.
Over time, that policy has clearly been abandoned as Southgate, like many of his predecessors, has realised it sounds good in theory but is not so easy in reality when he, for example, is an admirer of Fabian Delph, whose contribution for Manchester City in the Premier League since Boxing Day amounted to a 10-minute substitute appearance during a 3-0 win at bottom-of-the-league Huddersfield.
On that basis, perhaps there can be a little empathy for John Stones on the back of his accident-prone performance in England’s defeat by the Netherlands in their Nations League semi-final. If those mistakes were a symptom of rustiness, who can really be surprised when Stones has started only three league fixtures for the champions since 10 February? If his confidence is low – or, at least, not as high as it could be – is that such a shock when his longest run of 90-minute league performances under Pep Guardiola last season amounted to a three-match sequence against Liverpool, Burnley and Spurs in October? Stones has just finished the season with winner’s medals from an unprecedented domestic treble but, in another sense, his vulnerability in Guimarães summed up what has been a difficult season for him personally, particularly since the turn of the year.
Southgate was unwilling to add to the criticisms but perhaps he was also unaware, when asked whether the time had been and gone since Stones should have grown out of these kind of errors, that the previous two England managers, Sam Allardyce and Roy Hodgson, had faced the same question during their time in charge. In Hodgson’s case, more than once – to the point he agreed very matter-of-factly that, yes, it was time for Stones to buck up his ideas.
The current manager put it more sympathetically. “He knows that I am here to support him,” Southgate said. “I know he is going to get criticism, and he’s had a difficult end to the season in that he was not playing regularly at his club. We still think he has been our best centre-back, that he has huge qualities and huge potential to be a top player, but he had so little football at the end of the season that the sharpness and fatigue as the game wore on were definitely factors.”
That sounded like fair comment, for the most part, other than the perception that Stones is still at an age when people should be talking about his “potential” and, therefore, excused the occasional lapse in concentration. The same used to be said of Rio Ferdinand in his younger years and Matthijs de Ligt’s mistake to give away the penalty for England’s goal was another case in point. Yet the issue here is that Stones is 25, six years older than De Ligt, but still worrying a selection of different managers because of his tendency to overelaborate, to lose the ball in dangerous areas and endanger his team.
“It’s difficult to know why individual errors like that could happen,” Southgate said. “I can only say that to play the way we want to play takes courage and, when it doesn’t work, it’s very difficult for the players. It’s easy to turn round and kill them. But we have some defenders who are prepared to take the ball in areas where many defenders in the world aren’t. It’s been the bedrock of how we have progressed and we have to continue it, but of course we can’t make the mistakes we did.”
Southgate was not just referring to Stones when Ross Barkley, dropping back from his midfield role, was also culpable for the third Netherlands goal. Yet the manager made the point that the nervousness spread once Stones had presented the ball to Memphis Depay in the buildup to England going 2-1 behind. Stones also lost De Ligt at the corner from which the Ajax centre-half headed in the equaliser and that, for Southgate, was another disappointment.
“I’d have to go back through the footage but they were too strong for us from set plays all night,” he said. “We had others cleared off the line and in [Virgil] van Dijk and De Ligt we knew they had two players who attack the ball really well. We weren’t able to cope.”
Stones did start 20 league games for City last season, compared with Vincent Kompany’s 13 or Nicolás Otamendi’s 14, and there was only Aymeric Laporte, with 34, from Guardiola’s list of centre-halves who began more. Yet Stones did not play a single minute of City’s four knockout ties in the Champions League, as if Guardiola did not fully trust him in the key assignments. He was a 79th-minute substitute in the FA Cup final and was not even in their squad, uninjured, on a few occasions, at a time in his career when he must have hoped he would be a mandatory pick in City’s defence.
Southgate’s hope is there will be more opportunities for Stones next season, particularly with Kompany leaving the club to become Anderlecht’s player-manager. Yet there is also the strong probability City will go back into the transfer market to sign a replacement for their captain.
“I think we have to wait and see how that emerges,” Southgate said. “At the beginning of the season he [Stones] was playing in all the big games. That hasn’t been the case towards the end. But I still think Stones and [Harry] Maguire are our best two and I have to be there to support them in their difficult moments.”