When rumours began last week that Sergio Ramos could be on his way to Manchester United, many dismissed it as the usual idle gossip that you always get at this time of year. Real Madrid selling one of their prize assets? Ridiculous. However over the last few days reports of Ramos to United have gathered some serious pace.
United are reported to have tabled a £28.6 million bid for the 29-year-old. Suddenly, a transfer story that many initially dismissed has turned into potentially the biggest coup of the summer. The Spanish international has reportedly told Real that he wishes to leave the club this summer and only wants them to negotiate with Louis van Gaal's side.
United are in desperate need of a centre-half this summer but until a few days ago United fans could only have dreamed of capturing a player of Ramos' calibre. With Ramos expressing his desire to leave the club and United having plenty of funds available it seems like this shock deal could well be completed. United have been searching for a composed ball playing centre-half since Rio Ferdinand left the club and World Cup winner Ramos certainly fits the bill.
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A NEW CONTRACT FOR PHIL JONES
On the same day that United submitted a formal bid for Ramos, Phil Jones was handed a new contract by the club. The Englishman has put pen to paper on a deal that will keep him at the club until June 2019. The 23-year-old joins fellow defenders Chris Smalling, Paddy McNair and Tyler Blackett in signing a new deal under Van Gaal.
The new long-term contract will have come as a relief to the former Blackburn player whose future was far from certain this summer. Quite what Jones has done to earn himself a new deal is unclear. He struggled with injury again last season and often underperformed when he was fit.
When Sir Alex Ferguson retired he told Sky Sports: "Arguably, the way he is looking, he could be our best ever player." At the time few would have questioned the Scotsman's judgement, but two seasons later those comments are looking like wishful thinking.
Jones has certainly not developed as well as Ferguson seemed to anticipate. Two years on from Ferguson's retirement, Jones is showing little sign of becoming an all-time great. He is still to cement a regular first team spot. Granted, Jones has had his injury problems which have stunted his development, but his performances also haven't been consistent enough for such a big club.
The England international has shown flashes of defensive quality during his time at the club but has never been able to maintain his performance levels. United have a history of centre-halves who defend excellently but are also good on the ball, but Jones does not fall into this category. He too often looks uncomfortable in everything he does on the pitch and his decision making can be ludicrously rash.
This makes it surprising that Jones has been handed a new contract by the club. Surely he's had his chance? He's been given enough time to prove himself cable of filling the void left by Vidic and Ferdinand. Louis van Gaal must see something in the defender, but it's also common knowledge that their in the market for a centre-half this summer. So do they really need Phil Jones?
WHERE WILL JONES FIT IN?
Despite receiving a new contract, Jones will be far from assured of regular first team action next season. Earlier this month Jones told the media that he believed that he and Chris Smalling had earned the right to be United's centre-back pairing. However with the funds at van Gaal's disposal this summer such a partnership does not look likely to happen. If Sergio Ramos comes in then one of them is going to lose out.
Let's face it, Ramos is far superior than both Smalling and Jones. The Real Madrid man is regarded as one of the best defenders in the world and would walk into Manchester United's team. If United only sign one new centre-back this summer then Smalling and Jones will be the front runners to partner him. The question is which of them will?
Chris Smalling would be the favourite to partner Ramos in the centre of defence. The 25-year-old was by far United's best centre-back last season. He is far from the finished article, but if you compare where he was 12 months ago to where he is now then you cannot deny that there has been definite improvement. Make no mistake, the jury is still out but he has shown signs that he could become a top defender with time.
While Smalling has shown signs of improvement under van Gaal, Phil Jones has done little to justify his new contract. His compatriot has stepped up to the plate, but he simply hasn't. Jones would lose out in a fight for a space with Chris Smalling and rightly so.
Smalling deserves his place in the team next season after a good 2014/15 campaign, if Jones was to be selected ahead of him then it would be an injustice. Smalling has shown real signs of potential over the last year and playing alongside a player like Ramos would help him immensely.
One would assume that Van Gaal still sees Jones as a player who can develop into a crucial player at the club. He is still only 23-years-old meaning he still has time on his side. However Jones has played under three United managers now and he has not advanced considerably since his first left. Is this going to change? van Gaal clearly sees something there otherwise he wouldn't have agreed to giving the player a new contract, but how much time will Jones get?
Unfortunately for Jones he could well find himself on the bench next season. He will certainly lose in a fight for a place with Sergio Ramos and if Chris Smalling can maintain his performance levels from last season then he'll lose out to his fellow England international as well. Despite Jones' slow progress the club are remaining very patient with him. With greater competition for places next season he needs to be up for the fight, or he should leave now.
JONES THE UTILITY MAN?
During his time at Old Trafford Jones has been called upon to play in several positions. His willingness to play wherever he is required should be admired. While he does not excel in any single position he has proved to be versatile. This may be one of the factors in the club's decision to give him a new contract.
A club can always use plays who offer versatility. During the course of the campaign injuries are a given and when United are concerned they are particularly frequent. Therefore a player like Jones could be useful to plug gaps when players are injured. Of course this would not be the best thing for Jones' development but van Gaal may well decide that it's the best thing for the team.
Would Jones be happy to have such a role at the club? The jack of all trades, master of none is not the most attractive role in the team. The Englishman clearly wants his long-term future to be in the centre of defence but he'll struggle to hold on to a place there. He may well have to accept that in order to get minutes for the club he'll have to play when and where he is required.
DOES JONES HAVE A LONG-TERM FUTURE AT THE CLUB?
Although Jones did not perform well enough last season he can relax in the knowledge that their are few centre-halves at the club who are faring any better. Jonny Evans manages to make Jones look like Franz Beckenbauer and Van Gaal seems unsure whether Marcos Rojo is a full-back or centre-back.
There is of course young competition coming through. Tyler Blackett and Paddy McNair both broke into the first team last season. However they still have quite a way to go before they can become regulars. The two of them would benefit more from a season out on loan next season than another around the United first team.
With the Ramos deal looking like it could be completed, Jones is set to be put in a difficult position. This will be one of the toughest battles of his career. Van Gaal has given the player the chance to prove himself by handing him a new deal, now it is up to him to repay his faith. Jones will still get chances next season and when he does he needs to grasp them firmly in order to make an impression.
Jones may now be contracted until 2019 but we know in the world of football that means very little. He is far from guaranteed to be at the club in a years time let alone four. He should consider himself lucky that he has been given yet another chance to prove himself at the club. Next season will be a make or break campaign for him because United's patience with him is going to run out eventually.
Jones' future is in his own hands after signing his new contract. His manager believes in him and now he must believe in himself. It will not be easy, maintaining a spot in the team will only get harder as United bring in new defenders, but he must be up for the challenge. If he does not perform next season then his time should really be up. However if he steps up to the plate, like Smalling did last season, then his future at the club could start to look much brighter.