Jones earmarked for Man Utd defence but better in midfield
The football world has a Jones for Phil Jones. We can’t get enough of him: stories of what he’s done, what he’s going to do, and particularly who he compares to. Since joining Manchester United, the great and the good of the football world have compared him exclusively to the great. Bobby Charlton cited Duncan Edwards; Fabio Capello suggested Franco Baresi and Fernando Hierro; Phil Neville preferred Roy Keane; Ray Wilkins went for Bryan Robson; and Mick McCarthy compared him to Paul McGrath. It can only be a matter of time before somebody announces that Phil Jones is the new black.
Few would argue with the essential point of these comparisons – that Jones is going to be a superstar, win 100 caps, captain Manchester United for the best part of a decade and possibly save the world – but another equally widespread assumption about Jones is more questionable: that he will end up as a centre-back.
Only Nani has played more games for Manchester United this season, yet Jones’ story has not been one of consistency. Though he has frequently been magnificent, his performance level has fluctuated wildly, as we might reasonably expect of a teenager in his first season at a club of United’s size. He has also flitted between centre-back, right-back and centre-midfield because of United’s injuries and Sir Alex Ferguson’s insatiable appetite for tinkering. Utility players are a manager’s best friend, but very few go on to achieve true greatness. It seems certain that Jones will nail down a position in the next 18 months.
Nine out of 10 pundits are sure that position will be at the heart of the defence; the observation is made with the certainty of those who own a DeLorean. Yet very few have actually explained why; and in his short Manchester United career, centre-back has been by far Jones’ least effective position. He had terrible games at home to Basel and away to Newcastle in particular, and was also unconvincing at home to Blackburn and Benfica. He can be bullied in the air, as Shola Ameobi and Demba Ba showed, he is slow on the turn and looks extremely uncertain when left one-on-one. These will all improve with experience, and playing alongside an unusually vulnerable Rio Ferdinand hasn’t helped, but the extent of Jones’ struggles in what was supposed to be his best position are slightly alarming.
Another persuasive argument against the deployment of Jones at centre-back is that it curbs his considerable attacking talent. He scored an adroit volley at Aston Villa and is capable of excellent crosses, best demonstrated by his beautiful ball into the corridor of uncertainty for Wayne Rooney’s first goal at Bolton. Then there is the most striking of his many assets, the ability to embark on exhilarating, regal forward runs. They produced goals for Wayne Rooney against both Bolton and Chelsea, and almost led to goals for Jones himself against Sweden and QPR. At centre-back these surges will inevitably be rationed. Why would you want to restrict a force of nature?
Fabio Capello has also noted Jones’s excellent decision-making, particularly in possession, another quality that is not maximised at centre-back. We can fantasise all we like about an English Beckenbauer, but it is never going to happen. As his game develops, Jones may carry on a lineage that includes Terry Butcher, Tony Adams and John Terry. He could easily become England’s central-defensive rock. But it is certainly not set in stone.
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