Phil Jones: Still Young and Still Learning

TFN debutant and Blackburn Rovers fan Felix Reed assesses the career of Phil Jones…

Phil Jones has recently found himself on the wrong end of some negative publicity because he’s taken a few corners and pulls a face that launched a thousand Sportbible-worthy memes. However, given that Jones turns 23 next month and that his current contract has less than 18 months to run, it might be time to have a more serious appraisal of where his career is heading. He still has some way to go if he is to fulfil Sir Alex Ferguson’s prediction that he could be the greatest player in Manchester United’s history.

Even as a fan watching Jones make his Blackburn debut as a fresh faced 18-year-old, his talent was apparent. Coming up against the 2010 version of Didier Drogba and Chelsea, his positional awareness, speed and tenacity were remarkable. One tackle he made on Frank Lampard will live long in the memory. When locally-born, 18-year-old academy graduates are making their league debut and absolutely smashing through established England internationals it does tend to stick in the memory.

After more good performances, predominantly as a defensive midfielder in Sam Allardyce’s counter-attacking 4-5-1 formation, Man United came calling. Even a serious knee injury that kept Jones sidelined for 4 months didn’t deter the Red Devils from spending £16.5 million on the then 19 year old.

The brief appearances at Blackburn probably act as something of a microcosm for Jones’s United and England careers as a whole since the move. There have been imposing performances as a centre back, some impressive performances in less familiar roles and injuries.

The criticisms levelled at Jones stem from his versatility and injury record. Some have perhaps been a little over eager; attempts to put down England and Man United’s next big thing. Nevertheless, there is no denying that Jones has had a host of injuries and been something of a jack of all trades in the past.

Whilst injuries have restricted him to just 12 appearances this season, they have all been as a centre back. Louis Van Gaal’s persistence with a 3-5-2 formation has seen Jones playing on the right hand side of the 3. The right centre back position makes the most of his pace when covering out wide and his reading of the game. These attributes are reflected in the fact that no other Premier League player has made as many interceptions per game (4) as Jones has this season. The tenacity and willingness to tackle he demonstrated at 18 is still a part of his game, with an average of 2 tackles per game over the course of the season.

A comparison with other defenders in the Premier League suggests Jones’s performances this season have been worthy of more praise. The centre back with the highest number of tackles per game is Richard Dunne who has tallied 2.8 per game, not significantly higher than Jones. It should also be noted that defenders playing for teams in the lower reaches of the Premier League have the advantage that their teams see less of the ball. United average 59% possession this season compared to QPR’s 44%.

In what probably isn’t a vintage era for centre backs in the Premier League, the defenders with the best reputations have less notable stats than Jones. Vincent Kompany (2.2 interceptions per game and 1.5 tackles), John Terry (0.9 interceptions, 1.3 tackles) and Gary Cahill (1 interception, 1.2 tackles) all fall well below Jones’s figures. Laurent Koscielny comes closest to matching Jones with 3.6 interceptions per game and 1.3 tackles.

Given Jones’s strengths in making interceptions and tackles it remains to be seen what more he can do to enhance his reputation and his game. His distribution has been criticised at times. Nevertheless, a pass accuracy of 85% is only slightly worse than the likes of Terry, Koscielny, Jagielka, Cahill and Skrtel who are either just below or above the 90% mark. The youngest of those defenders is Cahill at 29. Composure on the ball and vision comes with age for defenders it seems.

The lack of outstanding and dominant performances in the last 18 months has perhaps been a valid criticism aimed at Jones. The best defenders reputations aren’t forged in patches on the domestic stage, but in big games against the elite teams. Without the Champions League to compete in this year, Manchester United players have lost the opportunity to regularly test themselves against Europe’s best. Indeed, perhaps the finest performance of Jones’s career to date came in the Champions League, against Real Madrid in Santiago Bernabéu back in 2013. Cristiano Ronaldo was persistently closed down with Jones completing a number of inspiring blocks and tackles as United secured a 1-1 draw. To put that effort into context, Real won 17 and drew two at home in La Liga in 2012/13 and Ronaldo scored 55 goals. Interestingly, Jones played that game in the defensive midfield position he’d first been used in at Blackburn by Sam Allardyce.

Of course, statistics and one great performance in defensive midfield nearly two years ago shouldn’t be taken as a doctrine proclaiming Phil Jones is on course to reach the giddy heights he was tipped for. Even the defender’s staunchest fans admit he needs to start turning out consistent performances for longer periods of time. However, for a 22 year old, now playing in an unfamiliar formation without the comfort of being in a consistent defensive line up, there should be more than just guffawing at him taking a corner.

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