When Alex Ferguson bought Phil Jones from Blackburn Rovers for £17 million in 2011, Manchester United fans were hotly debating what his best position is — centre-back, right-back or defensive midfield. And while he was deployed in defence rather than midfield under the club's former manager, David Moyes' incoming seems to have heralded a new beginning for Jones in the heart of all the action.
Under Ferguson, Jones played 66 matches. Out of these 66 matches, he played in midfield 18 times — with United losing only four of them (including the 6-1 mauling by Manchester City) — his best performance coming against Real Madrid when he gave a superb lesson on man-marking by limiting Cristiano Ronaldo's danger.
Under Moyes, he has played 14 times — six times in defensive midfield. Manchester United have not lost any of these matches, winning four of them — against Liverpool, Arsenal, Fulham and Norwich and having drawn two — against Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad in the Champions League.
During the current season and even at times during the last one, United's defence seemed porous — vulnerable to quick counter attacks which left the slowing Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic exposed in crucial matches giving way to perhaps a flawed logic that Robin van Persie won them the title single-handedly.
While Marouane Fellaini was brought in to add some bite to midfield and allow United's more potent attackers to flourish forward, it's actually been Jones whose rugged approach has reaped important results for Moyes. Fellaini sits back and watches as the 21-year-old Englishman throws himself into tackles and dominates aerial duels.
With Jones protecting defence, United have conceded just two goals out of the total 15 they have already conceded this year. The obvious argument is that six games is too small a sample size so we took into account last season too. In 2012/13, Jones was deployed in defensive midfield against City, Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal twice, Everton, Chelsea and Real Madrid among other teams — and believe it or not, United suffered just one loss in these big matches (conceding eight times and scoring 10).
If nothing, it shows that with him hovering around the centre circle, United have a remarkable record against the top teams and even if they may have conceded they also seem to attack with more freedom.
Football didn't see comprehensive stats analysis during Roy Keane's career, but in 2004-05 he recorded 89% passing accuracy, 38% shooting accuracy, won 67% of his tackles, completed 40% of his crosses and 82% of his dribbles.
Now look at Jones' stats: In the Premier League, Jones has enjoyed a 88.7% passing accuracy this season, has a 50% shot accuracy and won 62% of his tackles. He has hardly been dispossessed too (six times). He has made 20 interceptions, 18 tackles and 53 clearances — all the while making just 11 fouls (three yellow cards) and being fouled 10 times. He's also scored once. All in all, it's a fantastic report card for someone whose natural position is centre-back.
While Jones is young and has a long way to go in emulating the former No 16's leadership skills on the pitch — he is certainly adding a different dimension to United. He may not be as good going forward too, but has the luxury of time on his side to learn those nuances. The similarity otherwise, is too hard to ignore.
As mentioned in this blog on ESPN FC by Musa Okwonga, "Jones added Mesut Ozil to the list of players whose impact he has helped to minimise, along with Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Andres Iniesta. Of course, he can't claim sole responsibility for their discomfort against his teams, but it's pretty revealing that each of these attackers seem to have had an off-night when lined up against him."
Giving you an insight into United's victory against Arsenal over the weekend, Jones' stats are equally impressive. He completed 19/20 passes in a match where the home team hardly saw the ball — 9/10 in the defensive half and 10/10 in the attacking. He made a crucial tackle stopping Mesut Ozil 18 yards from goal and made eight clearances out of eight he attempted. He was brave enough to go into one-on-ones five times in the match, succeeding thrice (twice against Aaron Ramsey and once vs Mathieu Flamini).
A defensive midfielder is the unsung hero of the team. And Jones' typically English approach is oddly out of place in a United team which thrives on direct passing and swift movement — but he still makes it look quite beautiful. He is a boon to the likes of Adnan Januzaj, Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa and Antonio Valencia — all of them players who'd rather not trudge back too often.
You can go on and on about his performances in midfield but the conclusion is the same — Phil Jones could be the answer to United's problems. You'd better remember the name.
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