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
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
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
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.