Above is a tweet from almost a year ago, which I intentionally bookmarked for a night like Tuesday night. England defender John Stones slipped when trying to play his way out of trouble to hand the Netherlands the ball in a dangerous area. This would eventually lead to them winning and converting a penalty.
When Stones first came onto the scene, his performances caught the eye to such an extent that nobody expressed any concerns at his preference for holding onto the ball rather than launching it up the pitch. In true English fashion, we began calling into question his style once he started to go off the boil a bit. The reaction to him after Tuesday’s friendly has been embarrassing, but hardly surprising.
Without fail, whenever a defender cocks up trying to play out from the back, thousands pop up and ask in disbelief: why didn’t he just get rid of it? Or mention that there’s a time and place for everything. This doesn’t mean they all prefer archaic, kick-and-rush football by the way, an idea which I also believe is somewhat outdated.
But it does highlight our shortcomings in terms of knowing what’s required to produce quality all-round defenders, as well as a mentality that continues to hold us back — the fear of making mistakes when holding onto the ball under pressure.
Mark my words, this mentality will stop us producing a team good enough to win anything.
Given time, Stones will learn when the right moments are to clear his lines due to nothing being on. While he does so, he will make a few mistakes trying to look for openings under pressure. This is part of the development of any player. But what won’t improve a player to the highest level is encouraging him to take the safety-first option each time.
If a defender has the ball and is confronted by opposition strikers, sometimes it’s a better option to dribble past them and up the pitch, or drop a shoulder to get a yard on one of them, so that space opens up in front of you and you can pass to a teammate. Occasionally it won’t work, or the player gets it wrong and pays the price of a goal against his team, but does this mean he should be discouraged from doing it? After all, a good old-fashioned clearance also hands the ball back to the other team more often than not.
Without the practice of playing in difficult situations, a player doesn’t gain confidence on the ball. And if he doesn’t have the necessary confidence on the ball, he either won’t attempt to keep it under pressure or will be too predictable and lose possession.
Even Stones’ mistake the other night wasn’t a clear scenario in which he should have smashed it clear. For a start, he could have simply played the ball past the onrushing Janssen and moved into midfield. And even once he turns, the chance is still there to roll it back to the ‘keeper. Moreover, the attempted move — to step over the ball and commit the opponent while moving off in the other direction — is one I’ve seen Stones make many times, and with success. OK, it could be seen as poor judgement to try it this time because he slipped — players can slip due to getting their angles wrong or having unsuitable studs for the surface, but it’s not like the only alternative was to put his foot through it.
Our problem remains that we’re still terrified of the ball under pressure. We think we’re great on the ball when the opposition sits off us or when we can pass around in a 3 v 2 situation somewhere on the pitch, but as soon as our defenders have attackers bearing down on them, the ball turns into a hot potato.
People might say that Stones has had a poor season as he’s regularly been making these mistakes, and are also keen to point out that it’s resulted in his recent absence from his club Everton’s starting XI — is it really shocking news that a young player suffers a dip in form and confidence and is therefore made to sit out a few games? As an inexperienced player, he’s going to make these mistakes as teams set up to counter how he and his team play. His club has to accept that, and from an international perspective, it’s best that it happens in a friendly so that he does learn.
That’s not to say that Stones doesn’t have shortcomings or should even be in England’s starting line-up for the Euros — his lack of recent form is certainly a concern in that regard. But being reluctant to clear his lines isn’t a shortcoming. This leads me on to another recent tweet I bookmarked for later use:
Sure, we’re progressing from our image as cloggers and are encouraging players to express themselves more, but the defence remains a stumbling block for us. We produce reasonably solid defenders who lack the quality on the ball to start attacks, and supposed ball-players who are poor out-and-out defenders. It’s fine to point out defenders should be able to defend, but it doesn’t have to be one at the expense of the other — after all, World Cup winning nations have managed to get the balance right with their centre-halves.
While it is important for a defender to know when is appropriate to take risks and when isn’t, it’s equally crucial for coaches to know in which situations a defender can be pushed to take more risks. This is something we’re still to get right and what results in games playing out like our Euro 2012 quarter-final against Italy almost four years ago.
And we’re still not learning — even heroic friendly wins against the world champions won’t convince me otherwise, and the Stones case is just the latest example. As with the above tweets, I’m bookmarking this piece and will dig it up the next time England are stuck in their own half.