How John Stones may well have become England's most important playerHow John Stones may well have become England's most important player
Danny Rose and Marcus Rashford played well on Tuesday night, but the man whose reputation improved the most at the King Power Stadium only played 30 minutes.
John Stones came on for James Tarkowski after 60 minutes with England already 1-0 up and the game slowing down. But while Stones did not do much to turn the game, it was clear enough at the end of the evening that while he may not be England’s best player, he could well be their most important.
Gareth Southgate is a firm believer in his style of play, his new identity for the England team, which more than anything else means building up from the back. Southgate has always confidently trusted that English players were technically good enough to play this more difficult, continental style of play.
Plenty of players proved him right in the World Cup, when England got through to the semi-finals and managed to play the ball out from the back. But comparing those performances with this one, it was apparent that not everyone can play the same way.
Here Southgate trusted Tarkowski of Burnley in the Stones role, at the middle of the back three, and it was immediately obvious that not any player can play there like Stones. Tarkowski plays for a team who defend in a compact 4-4-2 and prefer to get the ball briskly forward rather than build up methodically. The first time Tarkowski got on the ball, after seven minutes, he gave it straight away, and should have been punished with a better Xherdan Shaqiri finish. From there, Tarkowski lost confidence, was twice beaten by Gavranovic and he never wanted to get back on the ball.
That meant that England could not build up their play as they like to, and barely got a handle on possession. Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire looked worse in possession than they ever did in Russia, with Stones sat between them. That central centre-back is meant to set the defensive line but Southgate admitted after the game that they dropped too deep, giving Switzerland more space to play.
At the hour mark, Tarkowski was replaced by John Stones and it was immediately clear that England could play their way again. They started to build play from the back, although in truth by that point the temp of the game had dropped so much that almost anyone would have been able to play through those areas.
But even in defence, Stones showed off his bravery and timing in the box, throwing himself in front of a Shaqiri shout, blocking it with his right thigh and earning an accidental kick in the head afterwards. Stones had to go off to get his head injury seen to but even when he came back on he continued to play with the same class.
By the end it was clear again that there are two Englands, with Stones and without him, and it is inconceivable that they go into a serious match without him any time soon.