If reports are to be believed, England’s last of three warm up games vs Portugal gives us our clearest indication of what Roy Hodgson’s starting 11 will be for Euro 2016. England lined up in a 4-3-3 that day and it appears that Hodgson’s preferred centre-back pairing will be Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill while Stones, who started the two previous games, will have to make due with a spot on the bench.
There are few players as polarizing as John Stones in the England set up. Depending on who you listen to, Stones is either one of the top defensive prospects in the game or an overconfident kid who costs his teams goals. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Six months ago it looked a foregone conclusion that Stones would be the man next to Smalling at the Euros, but the inquest into his game over the last few months seems to have resulted in his relegation from a starting position to one on the bench.
That is a mistake. Yes, Stones has displayed some lapses of concentration. Yes, he has put his teams under pressure at times due to his confidence in his ball handling and playing abilities and yes, he is inexperienced at the highest level. But are we forgetting all the good he has displayed over the last two seasons? Outside of the occasional mistakes, which one should expect from a young defender, he has looked the part consistently for his team. He marshalled Everton’s defense without the Everton Captain and key component, Phil Jagielka, on many an occasion before a loss of form. Yet it seems all that can be focused on are Stones’ mistakes. We’ve even seen him assigned blame for things outside of his control. It would make almost anyone believe that a sizeable portion of the public wants him to fail because he goes against their preferences.
Cahill has had a truly awful season for Chelsea. Yet there is less backlash against him starting for England than his younger teammate. Why is that? Could it be that England fans still have a preference for the ‘old-fashioned’ centre-back of a bygone era? Maybe. In Stones, England have a modern day defender who not only can throw himself about and tackle well but trusts himself enough to pick passes or dribble out of defense. This ability, when manifested correctly, sees the team maintain possession and initiate attacks. However, it seems England fans would rather a defender who smashes it up field for the opposition to retrieve and maintain pressure. Stones is not perfect and mistakes are a part of the game, especially at his age. This should not see him written off.
Rio Ferdinand, arguably England’s best defender of the past fifteen years, agrees that it should be Stones and not Cahill who starts for England. This tournament could be the catalyst for Stones development into a top-class centre-back. Cahill has never and will never reach that level and due to his age and lack of ability, it’s almost impossible to see him featuring at the World Cup in 2018. So, why delay with exposing Stones to international tournament football?
Those who argue that England cannot afford the possibility of mistakes from the overconfident youngster need to question the thought of affording the possibility of mistakes from an average and old player at the end of his career. If they can, so be it but leaving Stones in reserve for Cahill is quite possibly the biggest mistake England could make.