Phil Jones is an impressive physical specimen.
His mountainous figure bears the mass of a rugby player, yet for such a dominant athlete far too much of his early career has been spent in the treatment room. Much like pier Jack Wilshere, Jones is a young Briton tipped for world class stature and greatness, who would probably just be happy with an injury-free season.
Of course injuries are not the biggest issue with the man Sir Alex tipped to be the greatest of his former side's illustrious alumni. As he creeps into his twenties, managers, pundits, and fans still wonder what is Phil Jones?
Despite the monstrous twists of his face, he's obviously human, but in terms of footballing position he seems adept, yet not quite masterful, in a number of roles. In essence, successful stints at right back, centre midfield, and centre back may leave many fearing that he is becoming John O'Shea's successor rather than the reincarnation of legendary Busby Babe, Duncan Edwards.
Only one man seems absolutely certain about Jones' future, and that is the man himself. His response to praise for midfield performances is always the same, modest acknowledgement of his versatility and then: “centre-back is hopefully somewhere I establish myself”.
Indeed, Jones was purchased to perform this role. At Blackburn, Sam Allardyce saw him as a potential “new John Terry.”
His brave displays at centre back, happy to throw every pound of his considerable frame into the line of fire, attracted the interest of both Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson. His marshalling of Wayne Rooney in the 2010/11 clash between his current side and former side served as an audition. Ferguson was assured of his potential as an heir to Serbian colossus Nemanja Vidic.
Of course, Jones' signing was part of a long-term vision that Sir Alex had, as he sought to build a squad brimming with young superstars for his eventual successor to inherit (don't laugh).
In each of his last five seasons, Sir Alex invested in potential, hoping that by the time he retired, his new generation of fledglings (home-grown Welbeck and Cleverley, local purchases Smalling, Jones, and Ashley Young, and foreign imports Nani, Anderson, and Bebe) would develop into world class stars (please, don't laugh).
While some of the aforementioned seem unlikely to meet those expectations, much can still be hoped for the Smalling and Jones centre-back partnership.
The duo first hinted at world class potential at the 2011 Euro U-21 Championship. Despite England adhering to tradition and being repeatedly outplayed before being sent home, the centre-backs were imperious as a duo, and they took it in turns with Kyle Walker to be England's best player. They have since graduated to the senior squad, but play rarely in their preferred position.
So, is Jones really a centre-back? His physique and his determination bode well for a future there, but he has much to learn. Being a centre-back at the highest level is about much more than being able to match a big centre-forward for muscle and pace.
There is still a rawness about Jones's play in defence, similar to the early issues that Rafael had at right back. Jones impressive enthusiasm and desire to win the ball needs to be adapted to match the subtleties of attackers at the highest level.
Off the ball, an average striker will make a run which Jones will track before tearing the ball from their grasp. A good striker will make two runs, one as a bait to exploit any naivety in the defender, the second into space.
Half the time Jones will suss this out, at others he will fall into the trap. A world class attacker (like Alexis Sanchez) makes at least three subtle movements: one to initiate the battle of wits, a second to drag the centre-back out of position and thus create space for his team mates and himself; the final, more definite movement is a determined sprint into a P.O.M.O (position of maximum opportunity), from where he will meet a pass or cross and finish ruthlessly.
It is against the third level that Jones appears vulnerable and susceptible to losing his man. Furthermore, recent tactical innovations have made the centre-back's role, on the grandest stage of the Champions League, an increasingly cerebral challenge.
Successful centre-back play against Barcelona or Bayern Munich's possible use of the false nine or Bale, Benzema, and Cristiano Ronaldo's frequent interchanging requires a greater deal of positional awareness, concentration, and tactical intelligence than Jones currently possesses.
Yet, having said that, what Jones has been blessed with is an incredibly instinctive sense of potential danger. This, allied with his athleticism and the aforementioned tenacious mindset, allow him to often recover from any misjudgement with a last ditch challenge or block.
It is this healthy habit of managing to get his bulk of muscle in the way of a goal bound shot or between a playmaker and the ball that makes him a prime candidate for a defensive midfield role.
In the big games towards the end of Sir Alex's tenure, Jones was his preferred partner for metronome, Carrick. In clashes against Real Madrid and Arsenal, his all-action displays impressed and imposed his influence on the game. The same can be said about his performance against Arsenal this season.
Jones was a key factor in United's victory. Unashamedly brute and British in his approach, he used force to snatch the wands away from Arsenal's midfield magicians, leaving them overwhelmed and powerless to affect the game.
His relentless combination of tackles, interceptions, and blocks disrupted the rhythm of Arsenal's puesdo tiki-taka and set the tone for United's first half performance. Jones's infamous facial expressions may often look like he just walked in on his Nan twerking in nothing but her Bridget Jones pants, but he left Old Trafford that evening with a smug grin and having offered Fellaini a tutorial in how to play CDM.
One of course must fall short of hailing him as some Beckenbauer 2.0, ready-made solution to all United's midfield issues.
Jones' defensive abilities and athleticism fill the chasm that has often presented itself to opposition number tens, but his lack of grace and delicacy does little to add to the lacking creativity.
Yet with United still often preferring that ever so 1990s commodity of a strike partnership, the Carrick-Jones double pivot, stylistically the mirror image of Alonso-Khedira, could provide the stable foundation that allows the dynamic forwards to roam and create.
Certainly until full recovery from Darren Fletcher or the introduction of January imports, it seems Moyes best midfield options are two from Carrick (when he is fit again), Jones, and Giggs (as often as his 40-year-old body will allow).
There are some who have spoken of United's varied use of Jones as a repetition of the mishandling of Wayne Rooney that eventually culminated in his summer mutiny. Yes, he must not be wasted in positions in which his future does not lie i.e. right back, where like Smalling, his crossing technique and lack of guile can make him appear awkward in the role.
Becoming a jack of all trades is not an option for as grand a talent as young Jones. Yet, being the master of two can only make for a more cultured and intelligent footballer.
Whilst sharing the same areas for improvement as most defenders his age, Jones has the raw talent, potential and bravery to blossom into a world class centre-back in the future. But while United's midfield options are so bereft of energy and lacking a driving force, Jones developing the skill needed to succeed there will benefit his overall game, and allow him more game time than to be just a part of the current centre-back rotation.
Jones is in many ways the short term solution to more than one of Moyes's biggest problems. When Giggs's ageing limbs are not up to the vintage performance that he displayed against Leverkusen, Jones moves into midfield.
In subsequent games, when one of Ferdinand or Vidic's creaking joints will require rest, Jones steps back into his preferred centre-back role. In a couple of years, United could have a player who, like Philip Lahm at Bayern Munich, is a top class performer in both his position in defence and another role in midfield.
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