England manager Gareth Southgate is weighing up a surprise midfield move for John Stones.
Speaking on the eve of his side’s season-ending friendly against France, Southgate confirmed Harry Kane would retain the captaincy and promised goalkeepers Tom Heaton and Jack Butland 45 minutes each in place of Joe Hart — while also announcing the latter was still his “No. 1.”
But it was his revelation that Stones, Manchester City’s £50 million centre-half, was being considered for a switch into unfamiliar territory that piqued most interest.
Stones was edged out of the team that drew 2-2 with Scotland on Saturday by Chris Smalling and Gary Cahill but Southgate feels he has the requisite ball-playing skills to operate further up the pitch and may hand the 23-year-old a first opportunity to test drive the anchor role at Stade de France.
That is by no means guaranteed, with a back three also considered, but is seen as a live option in a squad that looks light in the engine room, where Eric Dier and Jake Livermore are the only specialists in a 23-man squad.
“Do I believe he can play that role? Absolutely,” said Southgate.
“I think he could do that. We had a look at that in training in fact. He’s a player who is very comfortable receiving possession, he has all the attributes to play as a holding midfield player.
“He obviously hasn’t done that yet really, so that’s a decision we have to make.
“I also think we want defenders who can bring the ball out and show composure. I think he could do either of those jobs.”
Southgate knows more than most about the demands of moving between two positions, starting his career in the centre of the park before making his name as a centre-half.
Southgate infrequently returned to midfield duties for England, at Euro 96 by Terry Venables, and then — less successfully — as Kevin Keegan’s Three Lions lost the last game at the old Wembley to rivals Germany.
“When Terry did it, it was genius,” he added with a smile.
It is a lot to ask of a player who, despite his monster transfer free, is still developing key parts of his game, but Southgate is not worried about that.
“John has huge potential. Defending is a skill you learn and he’ll learn a lot with a coach [City boss Pep Guardiola] asking a lot of him with the ball.
“He knows the belief we have in him as a player.”
Another player who can count on that same belief is Hart. His inability to keep out two Leigh Griffiths free-kicks at Hampden Park attracted plenty of debate and two of his challengers for the gloves will now get a chance to showcase their credentials.
Hart’s uncertain club future, unwanted by Manchester City and as yet without an apparent destination, means his status may yet be revised by the time of the next international get together but, for now at least, Southgate is clear.
Asked if he knew his number one goalkeeper, he did not miss a beat before answering: “Joe Hart.”
He added: “Next season we don’t know who will be playing at which club, who will be in form. But Joe has been excellent for us. The goals on Saturday were the first he’d conceded in qualifying, and we owe him for [a man-of-the-match performance in] Slovenia.
“His contribution around the group has been excellent since I’ve been manager. That said, I don’t want anyone to feel completely comfortable in [a] position because that’s not helpful. We want competition for places.”
There is also competition over the captain’s armband, with five players having been given the honour in Southgate’s first seven games at the helm.
Kane led the team out in Glasgow and will do so again here, though Southgate insisted that did not necessarily put him at the front of the queue to claim the job permanently.
“I am not committing to a timescale on that,” he said. “I think it has been a good experience to develop other leaders. There’s lots of potential leaders in different ways — some are at the forefront, speak first, lead from the front in different ways.
“Others more thoughtful, take responsibility on the ball, show leadership in other ways. Everybody’s different, but I am not in a rush to make that decision.
“I think at some point it is probably something we should do — in fact, I am certain it is something we should do — but I think it has been good to devolve the leadership.”