A Case for Altering the Defence: Who's Going to Make Way for John Stones?

John Stones’ return to centre-back against West Brom was crucial in Everton securing a first clean sheet of the season, his fifth in 10 league appearances. With another excellent display against Wolfsburg, now is the time for Stones to start week in week out in his best position, so should it be Phil Jagielka or Sylvain Distin who makes way?

In just three games of the2014/15season, Everton conceded 10 goals, a quarter of last year's total. Defensively speaking, that's the worst three-game return for any club in the Premier League era. Whilst a modicum of respectability was clawed back with the fine, clean-sheet win over West Brom and the feat was almost repeated against Wolfsburg in the Europa League, the underlying issues threatening to pull the rug from under the slick feet of Everton's superb attack must beresolved. Is it finally time to break up the furnituresque familiarity of Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin and start to build around John Stones? If so, who should make way?

Stones' reappearance in the starting line-up at The Hawthorns contributed hugely toEverton's first shutout of the season, sending a timely reminder to Roberto Martinez that his star pupil can no longer sit on the bench. A young player as mature, composed and, to be honest, happy as Stones needs nothing like the kind of protection most of his peers require. Limiting his playing time, in my opinion, is the worst thing we could do. We've known for some time Stones is the future of Everton's defence, but it's now undeniably apparent that hes also the present.

Distin will be 37 before Christmas so logic would dictate he should take a backseat,but this particular logic overlooks form. Last season, the Toffees'record seven-game win streak, the high point of Everton'sbest ever Premier League campaign during which just four goals were conceded, was built on Distin's partnership with Stones. The left foot/ right foot combination, not to mention experience in their respective full-back roles, complemented each other perfectly. Stones carried the ball and started attacks; Distin's pace enabled cover. In the nine games since the partnership was broken up, mostly by necessity but occasionally choice, Everton have won just three and conceded 18. When the alternative is conceding two goals a game, can Martinez afford to look further than Distin and Stones?

Put simply, yes, because he has to. "I don't believe in short-term success" is one of Martinez's most meaningfulphrases and whichever you slice it, a centre-back partnership containing a threat of retirement is a short-term fix.Distin has always been faster and fitter than his age dictates but like all physicalability, theres a natural limitation. It makes practical sense to prepare for that. Clearly, with Jagielka five years younger than his long-time sidekick, not to mention Everton's club captain, he has to be the one that Martinez puts his faith in to be Stones' partner for theforeseeable future. Which raises the obvious but crucial question: which one moves over to the left?


Balance or optimisation

Analysing where to place Jagielka and Stones in Everton's defence reveals a lot about the whole sides composition. Jagielka is strong, brave, an excellent reader of the play; Stones is creative, reactive, a superb passer. Everton's right (Coleman, McCarthy, Mirallas) is pacy, strong and direct; Everton's left (Baines, Barry, Pienaar) is measured, retentive and skillful. We have a choice between keeping Jagielka and Stones with their like-minded allies (Jagielka on the right, Stones on the left) to optimise their respective attributes or switching them to more evenly distribute these qualities throughout the side. You either end up with a very creative, technical left and a powerful, surgingright or a mixture.

Although further from his right-back roots, Stones would be my choice to take Distins spot for he suits the Baines-Barry left more than the Coleman-McCarthy right. Stones pace and handyrecovery tackle would be put to better use between two of Everton's older, slower players whilst Coleman and McCarthy would offer similar protection to the increasingly laboured Jagielka. Stones' boundlessconfidence on the ball would also see him hold his own in Baines-dictated close possession and more to the point, when Everton's left-side slow-play becomes too cramped as it occasionally does, I'd fancy theStones-to-Coleman out-ballover Jagielka's all day. With Romelu Lukaku increasingly prone to the odd drift to the right, not to mention Kevin Mirallas and often Aiden McGeady, Stones long range passing would be much more profitable if directed towards that part of the field.

Plus, lets look at recent evidence. More than any other player, Jagielka has struggled to adapt to Martinezs tactical tweaks as the semi-regular boo-accompanied long ball will testify. However Stones, whether he was formerly played out of position at right-back or not, became a centre-half in about six games. Theres a clear hint there, perhaps saying something about Stones superior versatility, perhaps something much simpler about youngsters greater propensity to learn. Leaving Jagielka in his familiar right centre-back spot simplifies his role, increasing the likelihood hell regain his form whilst switching Stones across will further develop one of the more well-rounded centre-backs were ever likely to see.

Jagielka and Stones are opposing footballers. One is an experienced, slow blocker attuned to reading the play, the other a fledgling, quick distributer with plenty to learn. One is classically English, the other distinctly European. The former is a captain missing vital leadership qualities; the latter a youngster who has them in abundance. It is precisely these differences that make Jagielka and Stones such a potentially great centre-back partnership. After two out of two clean sheets together and with the clock ticking on Distins career, now is definitely the time to find out.