Football fans are fickle. They always have been, and always will be. It isn’t hard to find examples but the debut season of Phil Jones makes a pretty good case study.
Expectations following his signing were moderate; a learning season awaited as understudy to the indestructible partnership of Vidic and Ferdinand. As so often happens, circumstances ripped up the best laid plans and Jones became a mainstay of the first eleven. Early swashbuckling performances fuelled a hype unlike any I have experienced as a United supporter; ‘future captain’, ‘best English player of his generation’ and a multitude of twitter in-jokes lauding his invincibility.
Then came the fall. Error strewn displays in the Champions League set alarm bells ringing. This was followed be an unhappy Christmas period which saw him bullied publicly and unequivocally in consecutive fixtures by Yakubu and Demba Ba. Ferguson took the decision to take him out of the firing line and for the remainder of the season Jones was no longer crowed about by Reds as the next big thing. Jones returned to favour for the run in; performing decently at full back yet the hype balloon had emphatically burst and broad consensus amongst fans on twitter was the Jones was undeserving of a place in the starting line-up. Jones star had taken a similar fall amongst fans of other clubs as the idea of Jones representing England in midfield was generally put forward as evidence of the weakness of the national squad.
It could be argued then that Jones finds himself in much the same position as last summer; no evident role in the first eleven yet recognised as possessing potential. However after a whole season fans tend to be less forgiving – consider the digs at Hernandez’s displays compared to his debut year – and given the pace that football moves forward, the season to come is pivotal for Jones future development. If the volume of questions we received for the pod last season is anything to go by, how to get the best out of Phil Jones is a contentious issue amongst Reds.
So what can we expect to see?
Phil Jones the right back?
Arriving at the club as a Central Defender, it came as some surprise that almost half of Jones’ appearances in his debut season came at right full back. He even gained international honours in the unfamiliar role.
DR (Defender – Right)
DC (Defender – Centre)
MC (Midfielder – Centre)
It will be interesting to see whether this trend will continue into next season; the new contract signed by Rafael suggests he will be given the chance to make the position his own – yet should the Brazilian’s wretched injury jinx strike again Jones remains the man most likely to take over the role. End of season rumours of a new arrival(Clyne, Debuchy) have gone quiet and the departures of Fabio (loan to QPR) and Fryers (out of contract, Spurs) suggest a left-sided acquisition is more likely. In Jones favour is Ferguson’s preference to select a natural central defender in one of the full back positions when facing an opponent with a height advantage. Smalling, O’Shea and Brown have all been chosen in recent seasons on this basis with prospects like Simpson and Bardsley allowed to leave. Jonny Evans represents an option at left back but the likelihood is that Evra will remain the adventurous full back with Jones continuing to enjoy game time on the right. Whether this is the best thing for Jones development is up for debate; but surely playing time in any position is more beneficial than time spent on the bench?
pace, dynamism, stamina, natural defender
erratic crossing, positioning, decision-making in possession
Phil Jones the central defender?
On paper, Manchester United continue to boast a centre back pairing who are the envy of most other clubs. The undeniable truth though is the games where we can count on both being available are becoming all too rare. Ferdinand’s renaissance was as unlikely as it is unsustainable and the extent to which Vidic has regained his powers has yet to be ascertained. Being a central defensive understudy at United guarantees games. It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was in central defence that Jones rose to prominence with eye-catching displays for Blackburn against strikers of the calibre of Didier Drogba. Greater judges than I have consistently asserted that central defence is where he belongs.
Two elements conspire against Jones’ chances of establishing himself in central defence this season; height and style. At 5ft11 (180 sm), he is up against it facing many opponents. Size isn’t necessarily a barrier; consider Puyol and Cannavaro. Ferguson however seems to disagree given his opining of Gary Neville’s stature preventing him from becoming England’s finest centre back. Neville’s height? 5ft11. Jones ‘rugged’ style also counts against him; the traditional combination in central defence is silk and steel. As an alternative to the ‘silky’ Ferdinand, Smalling seems to have the advantage; whereas Evans deservedly has the edge when it comes to replacing Vidic.
In his favour though is the much rumoured change in emphasis to a fluid, pacier style of football. Inevitably this brand of football requires a pressing game; meaning a high line and quick defenders. It is an unusual quandary that United’s strongest enduring asset – the Ferdinand Vidic partnership – is plainly unsuited to this evolution. It would be a brave manager to phase out the duo at this early stage but age and injuries might just make the decision for him; leaving Jones, Evans and Smalling to duel it out for the positions.
Recovery pace, mobility, transitions bringing ball out of defence
height, distribution, positional discipline
Phil Jones the central midfielder?
When we signed Phil Jones, one of the celebrated advantages was his ability to also play defensive midfield. In response I asked my Rovers season ticket holding friend James for his views and he was clear: ‘Jones is great at centre back but average in midfield.’ Not everyone agreed; Rob, writer for Rednews and editor of The Faithful, argued that Jones could become the solution to our central midfield problems. The truth lies somewhere in the middle; I’m not alone in envying the power and dynamism Yaya Toure brings to our neighbours and it is this assertiveness (albeit far less refined) that Jones at his best offers us. His performances in the role away at Villa and QPR were amongst his most impressive of the season. A vacancy undeniably exists for an energetic, combative force in our ‘engine room’ given Fletcher’s illness and Anderson’s, well… Andersonness. For fellow admirers of Milan’s GPS model; Jones represents a potential Gattuso to compliment Carrick(Pirlo) and Cleverley(Seedorf). That of course is not to infer that those three are in the same class, but the roles offer a neat template for a modern midfield trio. In fact whatever system Ferguson opts for it seems fair to argue Jones’ steel would offer a balance to the technical passing styles of Cleverley, Carrick, Scholes and Kagawa.
The future for Jones’ is reliant upon the evolution of our playing style; the manager has spoken of a need for ‘passers’ in this zone. Jones’ is widely perceived as erratic in possession but a fine tackler. Jones’ pass completion (83.9%) is superior to Giggs (80.2%) and Rooney (80.7%) but trails way behind Carrick, Scholes and Cleverley who all achieved above 90%. Given the rule changes in modern football regarding tackling it seems logical to favour an ‘interceptor’ over a ‘destroyer’ in defensive midfield. Jones again is damaged by his reputation over the evidence; only Carrick, Vidic, Evans and Ferdinand averaged more interception per game. The call from many United fans to allow Carrick more freedom to create could be answered by Jones taking on a greater share of Carrick’s defensive duties. Shaun Birch pointed out the potential of this partnership back in early December. It surely is no coincidence that Carrick’s weaving run and finish at Loftus Road was embarked upon safe in the knowledge that Jones was alongside him. Not that Jones doesn’t offer attacking thrust, his goal against Villa showing that not only can he offer a useful defensive presence high up the pitch but he can add a goalscoring threat in the box. When reflecting on our meek showing against City, it is worth pondering whether rather than an ageing Park, Jones could have been better deployed in the manner Pepe has on occasion been used by Mourinho.
Stamina, physicality, dynamism
Passing, decision-making, positional awareness
So where does this leave Jones?
It is a common opinion amongst Reds that Jones needs to ‘nail down’ a position. The fear being that he could become another John O’Shea. Leaving aside the disrespect this shows five time title winner and European champion O’Shea; is the idea of a player performing a variety of roles such a negative outcome? Is it not what we ask of modern footballers that they are capable of adapting to different tactical game-plans and on pitch situations? Ferguson would seem to think so; as his use of Wayne Rooney has shown. Players of the calibre of the aforementioned Pepe, Daniele de Rossi and Michael Essien have all shown in recent seasons that the flexibility to perform diverse role is a valuable asset. That said, there is a logic to the view that unless Jones emerges as a first choice in a particular role, he will never truly excel and fulfil his potential. As for which position? My hunch is central defence but I write it with little conviction. Personally I feel at this stage Jones is more suited to midfield yet Ferguson’s reluctance to deploy him there more often suggests the only man whose opinion counts (not the first time!) does not share mine.
Where do you think Jones should play? Is it necessary that he have a fixed position? Comment below or get involved in the discussion on our facebook page.
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Tom is a southern dwelling Kendalian who is one of our editors and a weekly guest on the podcast. He has an unhealthy obsession with Jaap Stam and despite 20 years of success never expects United to win.