By Thomas Doyle.
After another impressive performance at right-back against Sunderland, Phil Jones is fast becoming an integral part of a shape-shifting Manchester United defence this season.
Whether through form or injuries, many of Sir Alex Ferguson’s usual suspects have failed to consistently deliver this season, and while Jones was bought to Old Trafford for a princely £16million from Blackburn Rovers, this fee was felt to represent the rich promise of a talented youngster, rather than that of a ready-made player.
However, the 19-year-old has impressed on numerous occasions, and indeed in numerous positions, as the manager – celebrating 25 years in charge at Old Trafford on Saturday – seeks to find an answer to the defensive frailties on exhibit in many of United’s recent games, no moreso than in the 6-1 home drubbing by Manchester City.
Jones has made more appearances than any other Man United player this season, and while a number of these may have been from the bench, it points to the defender’s adaptability that he can be relied upon at this early stage in his United career.
While Jones looks first and foremost a ball-playing central defender, he is also blessed with a range of talents (much like Chris Smalling) that have allowed Ferguson to draft him into other position.
The youngster is strong in the tackle and a good reader of play, yet he also possesses a decent range of passing, good control while dribbling, and as shown at right-back, a high standard of crossing (particularly in the European home tie against Otelul Galati).
He also performed decently in a holding midfield role against Liverpool, yet with the team so uncreative on the day, it was difficult to truly evaluate his performance in such a lacklustre team display. Although describing the role as a surprise, Ferguson has obviously seen something in training that suggests the youngster can also play further up the pitch, as shown by his marauding runs from right-back.
While he may be merely filling in at right-back while both Chris Smalling and Rafael da Silva have been out due to injury, Jones has done enough to suggest that he will continue in that position when both are fit again.
On the other hand, due to Rio Ferdinand’s recent troubles with both his fitness and form, there is a real sense that, given the opportunity, Jones may well establish himself in the centre of defence alongside Nemanja Vidic before the season’s end.
Although Smalling and, to an extent, Jonny Evans would have something to say about Jones simply assuming Ferdinand’s role in the team, the 19-year-old was clearly brought to Old Trafford with a prominent future role in mind, as shown by the fee, and Ferguson’s willingness to move earlier than originally intended as to beat rivals such as Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger for his signature.
Jones recently said that he is learning from Ferdinand “every day in training”, and on the basis of his forceful, if slightly naive performance in the European tie against Basel that ended 3-3, he still has some way to go in learning about the intricacies of handling trickier opponents. Also, if Ferdinand continues to perform as he did against Sunderland, and knowing the solidity of his partnership with Vidic, Jones may have to settle for battling for a role on the right for now.
So, while although there are question marks as to just where Jones may find himself playing this season, one thing is for sure; he has the talent and the all-important belief in himself that Ferguson values so highly to make himself a very important member of the United dressing room for years to come. The fact that he is playing at right-back rather than in the reserves at centre-back should be welcome news, and further affirmation of Ferguson’s decision to part with a sizeable chunk of cash for such a young player. Gary Neville has singled out Jones as a future captain of both club and country, and on the basis of his fearless contributions to United’s cause already, it would take a strong voice to doubt him. Jones is here to stay.
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