In the summer of 2011, Manchester United signed a young man from Blackburn Rovers for a fee believed to be in the region of £16.5 million.
Phil Jones, despite being very young and having only a handful of senior appearances with the outfit from Ewood Park, was already being touted as a future England captain.
By the half-way point of the 2010/11 season, he had attracted attention from a host of top Premier League clubs, including Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea.
If rumours are to be believed, Sir Alex would have preferred Jones stay at Blackburn for another season before making his move – however with firm offers on the table from elsewhere, it was a case of having to act now or lose out.
Jones, now 20 years old, has gone on to play regularly for United and represent his country at the top level. He was part of England’s Euro 2012 squad, and despite not getting any action, was extremely pleased to be part of it, as it was only two years ago that he was playing in the reserve team at Blackburn Rovers.
The current Manchester United squad is one in transition – with squad household names retiring or being moved on and replaced with youth. As recently as last week, Sir Alex was quoted saying new boy, Nick Powell was good enough to replace United legend, Paul Scholes.
So does this mean it is only a matter of time before Phil Jones replaces one of Nemanja Vidic or Rio Ferdinand? Ferdinand in particular, although still a Rolls-Royce of a defender, is certainly past his best.
For me, the answer to this is no.
Strong, quick, aggressive, good in the air, great anticipation, a good reader of the game; all attributes any top flight defender needs – and Jones possesses them all, yet I do not see his future in the centre of defence. Not at United, not for England.
At 5’11”, Jones isn’t exactly on the tall side. We saw in an encounter at St. James Park last season, United and, in particular, Jones, dominated in the air by the Newcastle strike force. The game finished in a 3-0 defeat and although you cannot point the blame at any one person, the physical domination over United’s defenders that night was obvious.
In 1996, Sir Alex Ferguson stated his opinion that Gary Neville would have been the best centre half in England had he been two inches taller. Neville went on to spend the next 15 years at right back for the club.
Former Italian World Cup winner, Fabio Cannavaro, will go down as a great central defender, and he was a mere 5’9” – but as any football fan understands, height and strength are a must if you are to make it in the Premier League.
More than ever, we are seeing sides deploy tactics to cater for that typical “number nine”. Big and strong, great in the air, can hold up a ball and make your life hell. All elbows, at times.
Jones, obviously equipped for the physical side of the game, would eventually learn to deal with this type of challenge, but should he have to learn this trade?
He is more than a war horse. He is a good footballer. He can pick a pass and loves to get forward.
In the 2011/12 season, I believe Jones found his best form in December where he was given the chance to prove himself in central midfield. At the time, United had no Scholes, Cleverley or Fletcher, so were lightweight in that area – but Jones flourished.
Understandably, Queens Park Rangers and Aston Villa were not the hardest opponent, but you can only beat what is in front of you – and United did just that, with Jones putting in outstanding performances on both occasions.
There is a risk at any football club that if you do not make a certain position your own, you could become that “utility man”. Phil Neville and John O’Shea are perfect examples. Model professionals who would do any job asked.
O’Shea joined United as a striker, yet played every position except up top. Yes, big John even had a crack between the sticks. He was very good on the ball, but was never first name on the team sheet.
Phil Neville was a slightly different situation in the sense that he was a full back; left or right – that was his position. Neville occasionally played that holding central midfield role – but only for his tough tackling (just ask Jose Antonio Reyes), not his eye for goal or killer pass.
Younger brother of Gary Neville, Phil was always seen as the more talented sportsman, and naturally gifted footballer of the two, yet Gary lasted longer at United. Why? Because he made that right back position his own whilst Phil was filling in all over the pitch.
While Phil Neville and John O’Shea were loved by the United faithful, they will never make it into an all-time United XI or go down as great players simply because fans, pundits and even the coaching staff were not entirely sure on what position they excelled in.
Full back one week, midfield the next – this type of structure kills a footballer’s chance of international football, but more importantly, a chance of playing week in, week out for your club. The utility man will ultimately find himself on the bench when there is a fully fit squad – only getting a chance when injuries or suspensions hit.
Whilst I believe Phil Jones to be an exceptionally talented individual with a great future ahead of him, my concern is he may never reach his full potential if he is to be shifted from right back, to centre back, to central midfield, back to right back, again and again.