Stones helps to lay solid '¨foundations for England

JOHN STONES may be too young to recall first-hand when the chant '˜It's just like watching Brazil' first started to reverberate around Oakwell as Barnsley chased promotion to the Premier League.

England's John Stones (left) in action with Brazil's Roberto Firmino.

But, a little over 20 years on from those halcyon days for his hometown club, the England defender’s towering performance against the five-time World Cup winners at Wembley has sparked another football revival.

Namely, the return to the days when England were able to defend against good quality international opposition.

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The back-to-back goalless draws against Germany and Brazil, ranked first and second in the world by FIFA, brought some much needed cheer to fans of the Three Lions after what had, up to that point, been a distinctly ordinary 2017.

Sure, England had succeeded where the rest of the Home Nations failed by booking a place at next summer’s World Cup finals. But, bearing in mind the weak standard of the group that Gareth Southgate’s men topped, this could be safely filed in the ‘bare minimum’ section of supporters’ wishlists when Big Ben chimed in the start of the year.

Now, though, after the manner of those shut-outs at Wembley, suddenly there is something to build on for Southgate over the coming months following his bold switch to a three-man backline.

Harry Maguire and Joe Gomez were quite rightly praised for their role in England’s new-found steely backline but there can be little doubt who is the key man.

Stones has been the season’s outstanding defender in the Premier League and is now surely the one guaranteed starter in the national team’s defence.

Phil Jones and Gary Cahill will both be hoping to return in the New Year but it won’t be Stones making way. Finally, he looks like the player Manchester City thought they were buying when handing over the best part of £50m to Everton a couple of summers ago.

The mistakes and hesitancy of last season are long gone, with the man himself believing a desire to keep things simple is paying dividends. It is certainly advice he has already passed on to Gomez, just as the former Barnsley Academy product once learned from the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Joe Hart and former Sheffield United defender Phil Jagielka.

“It is short and simple, really,” said the 23-year-old, fresh from winning his 22nd international cap, when asked about the impact made by the Liverpool youngster. “You don’t want to flood his brain for when he is coming out on the pitch.

“That is what I found out when I was growing up, playing in big games. I didn’t want to be overrun and have too much information.”

As expected thanks to the presence of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho in the Brazil ranks, Tuesday night’s friendly brought a thorough examination of England’s defensive capabilities. It was a test the Three Lions passed with flying colours.

“I think my performances speak for themselves,” said Stones when asked about his own form. “I have done my talking out there, wanted to improve.

“It is about having a look at yourself and looking where you can improve and not shying away from where you have gone wrong. And that is what drives you to be a better player.

“You can’t argue with two clean sheets against two top opposition.”

The foundations laid by nullifying the threat of the world’s top two teams means the onus is on Southgate to add more attacking threat than was evident on Tuesday.

Harry Kane’s return along with that of Dele Alli will surely help in that respect, something that Eric Dier, captain against the Brazilians, believes bodes well for the challenges that lay ahead in Russia and beyond.

“As England as a team, we have the individuals now,” he said. “It is just bringing everything together as a team. We are working on that and we are definitely going in the right direction.

“The ambition of everyone here is to keep improving and progressing to be on the level with the best teams in the world.

“The squad was very depleted, but the young boys came in and did so well,” Dier added. “I thought Joe Gomez was just brilliant (against Brazil), Ruben (Loftus-Cheek) the other day (against Germany).

“What they need to do is keep improving, keep playing at a high level on a consistent basis.”

Stones, too, is adamant that the increased competition for places once everyone is fit means the revived enthusiasm for the national team over recent days can be maintained.

He added: “When you get the chance you have got to take it, like the lads did (against Brazil) and against Germany as well.

“The manager wants that problem, to know that everyone is firing. We want to make it difficult for him to pick a team. That healthy competition is what makes us better as players.”