With limited options in defence, could Phil Jones finally fulfil his potential? As the 3-0 defeat at Arsenal suggested, all is not rosy at the heart of Manchester United’s defence. After an extremely impressive start to the season, United’s back four were left badly exposed.
Phil Jones is fully fit for the first time this season, which could result in Daley Blind being moved to left back in Luke Shaw’s absence, a position he flourished in during the second half of last season. With Chris Smalling looking more and more assured in the heart of the defence, what has United’s other young English centre back got to offer?
Story so far…
A mixed bag. Jones exploded onto the scene after signing for United during the summer of 2011 all lung bursting runs and gurny faces. He excelled alongside fellow youngsters Chris Smalling, Danny Wellbeck and Tom Cleverley as a youthful United made a gung ho start to the season including a memorable 8-2 shellacking of Arsenal. Expectations were high for the man who Sir Alex would describe as having the potential to be the club’s greatest ever player. However injuries and being played out of position has significantly slowed down his growth as a player.
His less impressive performances have resulted in him becoming an extremely divisive figure among fans, some think he is another case of an overhyped young English player, others the future at centre back. As he enters his fifth season at the club it is still unclear whether or not he can be a reliable replacement for Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic.
What needs to change
Quite a lot. Jones’ most endearing quality is his bravery and it is also his most infuriating. He is extremely keen to win the ball (remember his epic faceplant/header clearance vs Arsenal last season?) but this sometimes leads to overexcitement as he gives away cheap fouls and is dragged out of position too often. Often he resembles a large Labrador excitedly jumping about but with no real understanding of how to appropriately react when you actually get near new people, mostly resulting in him clumsily climbing all over them. This leads to picking up needless injuries, bravery is an admirable quality but recklessness is not.
Consistency is also key, Jones is capable of marking a world class forward out of a game or falling over his own feet in equal measure. During the 4-2 rout of City last season he caught up to Sergio Aguero and was left one on one, he patiently jockeyed and then dispossessed him, even touching the ball off his opponent to win a goal kick. From the resultant goal kick he received the ball to feet and shanked the ball straight to a blue shirt, immediately putting his team back under pressure. That was Phil Jones’ United career in a nutshell.
The hope is that this consistency will come with sustained play at centre back. Last season Jones played 22 times in the league for United, all 22 times were in central defence, hinting that Van Gaal has mercifully put an end to his career as a midfield stopgap. That he was recently given a contract extension until 2019 under Van Gaal’s supervision bodes well and suggests the manager has faith in him, for now at least.
Why it’s a big season
While many of Jones’ flaws can be put down to youthful inexperience the clock is ticking on how long he will get the benefit of the doubt. Entering his fifth season at the club where he will turn 24 means this year is make or break. Louis Van Gaal has shown ruthlessness this summer that should light a fire under Jones. Smalling looked the less gifted player when they both arrived at the club but has secured one of the centre back slots for the foreseeable future, Jones needs to follow his lead.
This is a complete coin toss. I could see Jones’ United career going either way; if he displays more patience and intelligence he has every chance of becoming a genuinely solid and reliable centre back for a league winning team. If he doesn’t his career will likely fall flat and, although a depressing thought, it is not hard to imagine him being sold off to Sunderland for £5 million in a year’s time.
His extremely meme-able facial expressions during games have meant that the seeds of cult hero status have been sewn and at his worst he will be a solid squad player for as long as he stays at Old Trafford. However that career, while nothing to be sneered at, would ultimately be a disappointment for a player who has flashed so much potential.
Liam Maguire (@)