Phil Jones, with your face like a frightened haddock. With your face like a northern rubber mask. With your face like a poor idea. With your face like an abandoned caterpillar ride, left haunted for all eternity.
Famously once compared to Duncan Edwards by Sir Alex Ferguson, Jones’ career has many ups and downs since he arrived. He’s been labelled the next big thing and on occasion, has looked like he’ll live up to that moniker. However, at times he’s also looked incredibly hapless, often resembling a crash test dummy that has somehow ended up in a Manchester United strip. Who can forget the time he did a tackle with his head, all the while looking like the missing link making its first tentative steps out of the primordial ooze all those millennia ago?
Jones was signed as a cultured, ball playing defender, trusted to start attacks as well as break them up. This strength ended up being his weakness, as he was pulled all over the starting eleven. He popped up as a reserve fullback and for a period he was considered as a destroyer in central midfield. When he returned to centre back he looked perennially confused, often making simple positional errors he should have ironed out of his game. His other major issue was the many injuries he was forced to endure, only managing to play over 25 league games for United in two of his six full seasons.
This campaign, things have been different. Well, his performances have been better, he still looks like he is only now learning to control his limbs. But he has undoubtedly been United’s best defender and is now the first of the back four on the team sheet. This is despite Mourinho investing £60m+ on centre-backs in the last two summer transfer windows.
Under Mourinho’s tutelage, the boy from Preston has become a colossus in the United defence. He’s a tough physical presence, very strong and deceptively quick, rarely outpaced by an opposition attacker. His tackling is almost inch perfect, now giving away fewer fouls per game than any other season. What is most striking is how many clearances Jones makes. The defender currently averages around six a game. Against Burnley, he made the most of any player in the league that weekend, with fourteen.
In fact, his performance against Burnley is what inspired this little article. United weren’t particularly impressive at Turf Moor, stuttering to a 1-0 victory thanks to an impressive Martial goal. For the latter half of the game, United were pinned back while Burnley bombarded them. But Jones was equal to it all, stopping everything. Interestingly, on top of all of his clearances and his four interceptions, he only made one tackle. One! To me, this shows that he (or the rest of the team) is dealing with attacks before the opposition is receiving the ball in the area, which is a brilliant sign.
On top of these measurable improvements, he is also improving in the unquantifiable areas. That’s right, he seems completely at ease in the new Manchester United Maze Runner promotional advert.
While that is true, the point I was going to make was about him taking responsibility for leading the back four. The United defence has lacked leadership after they lost Ferdinand and Vidic, with Smalling and Jones the most senior centre-backs in the squad. Smalling has never looked comfortable barking out orders and in truth neither has Jones. But in the last few months, he’s got louder, pushing and pulling his partner into position and directing the position of his fullback. Against Burnley, Pogba lost the ball cheaply and flung his arms in the air. Jones halted the attack then, channelling his inner Ferdinand, absolutely lost it with the Frenchman. He’s becoming a leader on the field.
So, could he be the new Ferdinand? His playstyle doesn’t really match that of Rio, he is much more reminiscent of Rio’s partner, Nemanja Vidic. Those sprawling tackles, hurling himself at the ball and generally looking like a danger to himself and others. The only characteristic Jones lacks that Vidic had is that underlying air of malice. I don’t think you can learn that though, the Serbian seemed to be crafted out of violence.
After spending large parts of his United career looking like the centre back that would never make it, Jones now looks like he might be playing the best football of his career. At 25 years old, he still has plenty of room to improve on what is already a very good standard. If he can avoid all the injuries that have slowed down his progression in the past, it looks like United have one of the best defenders in the league for a few seasons to come.
With his face like a failed pancake.