It’s remarkable, the difference that a few weeks and an elite signing can make. The arrival of Alexis Sanchez has probably come too late to affect Manchester United’s hopes of winning the Premier League — they trail Manchester City by 12 points, and by 19 goals in the goal difference column –but it has certainly strengthened their designs on the UEFA Champions League. What’s possibly gone a little unnoticed in that time is the form of Phil Jones, which though not attracting much fanfare has been worthy of much praise.
It must be frustrating for Jose Mourinho, a manager who has built so much of his success upon defensive excellence, to have so much trouble with his centre-backs. Eric Bailly, perhaps his most gifted player in that position, is so often beset by injury. Marcos Rojo is still playing himself back into form, and in the process, has shown some of the uncertainty that marked several of his early appearances for United. Victor Lindelof has looked devoid of confidence almost from the very beginning, and though he has been better of late he has not done enough to inspire consistent confidence in him as a starter.
That is why Phil Jones has been so important in these last few games. During that time, United have won five straight without conceding once, and though the competition has not been the stiffest, Jones has been central to these victories. Not only has he provided vital interventions while several of these matches were still goalless, he has also been notably good at passing the ball out from the back, allowing his team toset a high tempo when in possession.
This quality has been most striking in comparison with Chris Smalling’s distribution, which has been far more conservative. Whilst Jones often looks to get the ball into the feet of Paul Pogba or Nemanja Matic, Smalling — even against teams who do not put significant pressure on the ball — is more often found passing the ball to the full-backs.
This may be an explicit instruction from Mourinho, as part of a general aim to get his wide players higher up the pitch. Yet its predictability invites the attention of forwards who have worked out where the ball is going to go, and it suggests a lack of self-belief more than anything else. Rio Ferdinand once told the story of how Roy Keane berated him for failing to play a pass into midfield in training, with Keane making the point that at Manchester United players were expected to take greater risks, and not merely to look square as Ferdinand had done in that instance.
Jones’ assurance on the ball has been particularly welcome, since for the longest time, he has been seen much more as someone who will break up play rather than make it. When in a central defensive partnership with Jonny Evans, it was he who would take the role of destroyer, while Evans displayed his tremendous range of passing — but, ultimately, was let down by his lapses at the back. While Jones is not as accomplished on the ball as Evans was, he can argue to be a better-rounded player — and a genuine threat to Lindelof as Bailly’s medium-to-long-term partner in the centre of defence.
Mourinho has made some interesting comments in recent weeks, with perhaps the most striking that — since he has now signed Sanchez — he is looking to make two new signings in the summer. One of those positions is presumably in central midfield. The left-back position,
given Luke Shaw’s recent performances, no longer seems so much an area where Mourinho would like to strengthen his squad.
If Mourinho is indeed in the hunt for a new centre-back, it is not Jones who should be overly concerned. He has again proven in months past that he can add guile to his grit, and has shown Mourinho — if he was ever in doubt — that part of the answer to his team’s defensive struggles is not elsewhere in the world, but under the roof of Old Trafford.
Looking across Europe, where Thomas Vermaelen is now starring for Barcelona after seasons of apparently never-ending injury, it is heartening to see that ailment-prone defenders can play themselves back into fitness, form and then favour. Jones, still only 25, could still have his best years at Old Trafford ahead of him — and, for now, it seems that his destiny is very firmly at his own feet.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.