Sunday, November 10, 2013

From the archives: Does Phil Jones Belong In Central Midfield?

When Roy Keane arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 1993, it was as the most costly player in the Premier League. The then-21 year-old attempted to deal with the pressure and anticipation in the most obvious way – scoring goals. Things began promisingly as he netted twice on his home debut against Sheffield United. The following month he racked up another brace on his European debut with the club against Honved of Hungary. He wouldn’t score twice in a game for another two years.

The sense of energy and urgency was to be expected. At that stage of his career, Keane covered a lot of ground, enjoyed the edginess of launching into challenges and relished his occasional forays into the area. But therein lacked a defining role within the side. His central midfield partner, Paul Ince, was the self-appointed Guv’nor – the big talker, the flash Londoner, that quintessential warrior. It took Keane the bulk of two seasons to find out what he was. Two seasons of discipline. Of developing an understanding that less is more. Of embracing the idea that being positionally sound, of reading the game properly and digesting its patterns and nuances, would ensure his particular niche.

Keane’s on-field maturity came at the perfect time for a United side under-going a well-documented transition. Often over-looked in the much-discussed emergence of a stable of young stars-in-the-making is how fragile the team was. The 1996 Double winners had a central defensive duo whose combined age was 65. They struggled so badly with depth issues that Keane was deployed at centre-back on a number of occasions. But, just like the season before when Ferguson would alter things tactically and drop Keane to right-back, his performance levels never dropped. His attitude and desire ensured that at the very least he’d ‘put a shift in’.

Phil Jones is still just 20 years old, raw and unpolished. But the similarities are there. Jones has been used in three different positions this season and despite a lack of continuity, he’s rarely been badly exposed. In fact, his performances in the centre of defence (his supposedly default position) have been the biggest grounds for concern.

When pushed further forward, he’s quietly and efficiently gone about his role while his most explosive contributions have come in the most unfamiliar environment of right-back. Like Keane, youthful exuberance has led to Jones attempting too much in games – most notably selling himself by diving into tackles in dangerous areas and always attempting to play the ball. These aspects have shown up usually when Jones is part of the back four.

When pushed into midfield though, he’s looked composed and assured. His passing accuracy is a healthy 85% while his only Premier League goal this season came at Villa Park when playing in midfield – ghosting in behind Richard Dunne to neatly volley home from close-range. The following game, away in Basel, may have resulted in a 2-1 defeat but Jones once again impressed in central midfield – using his physicality to score again – a difficult downward header from a standing-still position.

Then, there are the runs. Those dazzling, powerful, uncompromising surges seen most prominently against Arsenal and Bolton. Purposeful, dangerous and a nod to the de rigeur resurgence of box-to-box midfielders, should United operate with a 3-man midfield more commonly, there will be plenty of opportunity for Jones to fine-tune his craft.

His midfield capabilities were also spotted by Fabio Capello who praised his decision-making when playing a pass. The Italian handed him midfield starts in the back-to-back friendlies against Spain and Sweden at Wembley in November and though Jones lasted less than an hour against Vincente del Bosque’s side, he did well considering the mentally-draining and mechanical nature of the game.
Against the Scandinavians, he was deployed in Scott Parker’s deep-lying role and almost grabbed England’s second goal, showing sharpness to seize upon a loose pass and then setting off on a charge to the Swedish area, rolling his shot just wide of the far post. After the game, Capello made an interesting point – suggesting that if Parker, for whatever reason, was forced to miss future England games, Jones could step in to replace him.

Though his country may have other plans for him, at club level Jones is currently a short-term solution to their right-back problems. For years United were blessed with full-backs who slotted in and stayed there for over a decade (Irwin/Neville). Though Evra should have two or three campaigns left in him (he turns 31 in mid-May), United have been attempting to introduce potential suitors to the position with 19 year-old Zeki Fryers hotly-tipped to command a starting berth in the next few seasons.

Worryingly for the club, Brazilian twins Rafael and Fabio, who had looked certain of cementing regular first-team football, have regressed. Between them, they’ve racked up just 6 league starts this season – injuries and a loss in form have contributed to their decline.

With Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes the first-choice midfield pairing for the title run-in, Jones will remain a full-back until season’s end. But, should United move in the summer transfer market and bring in a specialist right-back, it’s a sign that Ferguson also sees the long-term appeal of Jones as a midfielder. Given the right development and encouragement to feel out the role, he will flourish.

He’s not the new Roy Keane but he could be the new Phil Jones.