Monday, June 29, 2015

Stones is Rock Solid

Kids these days. That's basically Adam Bate's argument in his recent piece concerning John Stones. Bate looks at Everton's Stones and sees him as Exhibit A in the trend toward a more cerebral and skilled defender, rather than the tough, no-nonsense defender in the mold of John Terry, say. According to Bate, the emphasis on more "attacking" skills for defenders risks making defensive skills unappreciated, and eventually we'll have games where eleven Messis take on eleven Ronaldos. This yearning for the days of hard fouls and concussions that made the Premier League borderline unwatchable has always struck me as odd, but that aside, is Stones really the poster child for the trend of the offense-minded center-back? David Luiz, Thomas Vermaelen, even Vincent Kompany spring more readily to mind. In fact, when you look at the statistics, in addition to being better on the ball, Stones is as solid defensively as his supposed foil in Terry.

There's no doubt that Stones is good with the ball at his feet. Bate has some good quotes from his U-21 coach Gareth Southgate on the subject, and the statistics back it up. Stones has the highest passing percentage of any defender with at least 10 starts (90%, tied along with Sakho and Skrtel), and that's despite having an average pass length of 22 meters. He's also excellent at keeping the ball, with a take-on success percentage of  81% (similar to Yaya Toure's 84%). Those are incredible numbers, and certainly can give the impression that his strength is in attack, not defending. Bate goes further though, writing, "Where one thing is gained, something else is lost," which seems to assume that Stones' offensive skills must come at the expense of his defensive skills. That is a nonsensical argument easily disproven.

The first point Bate makes is that nobody tackles anymore, except for Chelsea, and that's why they are so good defensively. Yet he conveniently ignores the fact that Stones is an excellent tackler. His tackle success rate is 68%, highest of any defender with at least ten appearances. Second on that list? John Terry. Stones also averages more tackles per 90 minutes than either Terry or his partner Cahill. Bate also mentions blocked shots in his piece, noting that Terry and Cahill both ranked in this category despite facing fewer shots than many other defenders. Still, it should be noted that Stones averaged 1.1 blocks per 90 minutes, more than Terry (.79) or Cahill (.87), although Everton did face on average 2 more shots per game. Individually, it's hard to find a statistic that points to Stones being anything but a strong defender (in fact lists him as having no weaknesses).

Still, individual stats only account for so much, and perhaps it is Stones' team record which is damning. Bate's piece primarily focuses on Chelsea as the premier defensive team in the league, and as seen above he uses Chelsea defenders who are supposedly more defensively-minded to provide a contrast with Stones. However, Chelsea were not in fact the best defensive team last year. Sure, they had the best goals against record, but that was helped by two factors: Thibaut Courtois and their offense controlling possession. Thanks to Courtois (and Cech), Chelsea's opponents' were only able to get 23% of their non-penalty shots on target into the net, whereas Tim Howard's nightmare season resulted in 35% for Everton's opponents. When looking at shots on target allowed per 1000 minutes of opponent possession (my preferred measure of defensive prowess since it reduces goalkeeper impact and accounts for style of play differences), Chelsea allowed 81, behind Southampton (71) and Crystal Palace (74) and just ahead of Everton at 83. Chelsea were better defensively than Everton, but it's not nearly the contrast Bate would have you believe, and both teams were among the best in the league defensively.

Stones is by no means a perfect player. Stats can't always quantify the value of good positioning, the impact of the team's formation, and other factors. However, all the available evidence points to Stones being a very good defender, capable of holding his own with anyone in the league, despite the fact he is only 20 years old. Bate states that Stones is "a defender who needs to work on his defending". Well sure, but only in the sense that Kevin de Bruyne or Raheem Sterling are attackers who need to work on their attacking: they are young and don't know everything yet. Stones is on his way to being the best defender in England and if I were Roberto Martinez, I would never let him go.

(All individual data is from, all team data is from collated by myself.)