He is Manchester United’s best defender. This man has shown marked growth and development since becoming a regular fixture in the starting eleven. You’re forgiven for thinking Eric Bailly, for he too has done well since moving to the Red Devils. The name, however, is Phil Jones. With a consistent run has come the consistent performances and security at the back that has not always been there. Man United have become progressively more defensively focused since Alex Ferguson’s retirement, but the personnel has to possess the ability to execute such plans.
By any statistical measure he belongs in the discussion of truly top class and borderline world class defenders. It’s a hard sell in the world of ‘ball-playing’ defenders; but it will be sold here.
Jones has not just been a defensive manager’s dream this past 18 months or so. He would be the dream of any manager that values the art of defending. This has largely gone under the radar for the praise of the money makers, the strikers, the Paul Pogba and the fantastic David de Gea. What we witness each time he steps out onto the pitch is a transformed man, a mature top class defender. How so?
Improved Ball Playing Ability
Few would even accuse Jones of being much more than a no nonsense, old-fashioned English defender until recently. He’s commonly associated, or at least he was, with being a brute who went to ground far too frequently. That style may be effective most times but carries the risk of conceding penalties and fouls in dangerous areas of the pitch. He frequently racks up monstrous amounts of clearances because he’s a put it out of trouble guy. Once the ball is out of play, it can’t hurt you. That’s his approach to defending and nothing is wrong with that. It is, however, primarily a tactic most employed by defenders at lower-level clubs. The style is predominantly the same, but with enhancements.
He is now displaying a calm when in possession and taking on a de facto distributor role in the absence of a suitable alternative to do so. There is no longer a constant presence of a Rio Ferdinand-style defender, and Daley Blind is used in a utility capacity but also too infrequently to take full charge. In the Jones-Bailly or Jones-Rojo partnership, Jones is the better passer. He’s also deferred much of the combativeness to the physical (and sometimes rash) Bailly while he takes the mantle of dictating play from deep.
The directives seem to be mostly to pass to the wings and to Paul Pogba depending on who is fit or what channel the attack will originate from. A major part of being the defender tasked with initial distribution is the avoidance of errors. We’ve learned the backlash associated with making errors as one of the last lines of defense from the John Stones perils last season and the one before. The calm displayed by Jones puts him at an advantage in that sense. This, too, used to be one of the fears with Jones. Would he go to ground, as he loves to do to, make a clumsy and costly tackle? Would he be burned, leaving the goalkeeper stranded because of that same tendency? As evidenced from the downturn in counter attacking goals conceded and the number of times De Gea has been asked to save from breakaways; that too is a significant improvement in his game.