Phil Jones: Assessing His Progress so Far at Manchester United
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When Phil Jones was brought on to stiffen Manchester United's midfield against Liverpool, you got a sense of how Sir Alex Ferguson might see him progress.
While United's style does not embrace a defensive midfield role, they have missed a Phil Neville or Nicky Butt recently and of course, Roy Keane.
No player as talented as Phil Jones is should be saddled with a comparison with anyone else. In 10 years' time, we will be making comparisons with Phil Jones, not the other way around.
Nevertheless, that did not stop the great Sir Bobby Charlton, no less, from comparing Phil with the incomparable Duncan Edwards.
That is unfair to both players. Duncan could play anywhere and wanted to do everything. He remains the best player I have ever seen.
Phil Jones is a player in his own right. There is no doubting his talent, but he still has some developing to do. His recent injuries have prevented him from adding to his England appearances, let alone Manchester United.
While Duncan was five months older than Phil is now when he died, he had twice as many appearances for United and 21 goals together with 18 full caps for England. And that was despite two years' national service.
And that was in his first season. So what progress has he made since he joined United?
Jones' first season
From Phil's point of view, his first season could hardly have gone better.
As a 19-year-old joining England's top club, he would naturally have expected to wait his turn and ease his way in. Sir Alex has often talked about how new players may need at least a season to find their feet. Shinji Kagawa is an example. Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie have been notable exceptions.
Like this season, in 2011/12, United had a catalogue of injuries, mainly in defence. Although Phil had already played 40 times for Premier League side Blackburn Rovers, debuting at just 17, joining United likely has felt like starting over.
He showed such promise and maturity on the preseason tour of America, that Sir Alex threw him into the cauldron of Wembley and the Community Shield fightback against Manchester City. A week later, he made his Premier League debut as a substitute against West Bromwich Albion.
Apart from the 3-2 defeat to Blackburn on Jones' return from a facial injury, when he looked somewhat lost at times, he impressed all and sundry in that first season, including Fabio Capello.
In fact, he had been called up to the full England squad on 5 August 2011 against the Netherlands at the tender age of 19, but the match did not go ahead because of the London riots. He eventually made his debut in October of that year, going on to win five England caps so far.
While injuries to his fellow defenders meant that Jones played a total of 41 matches for United last season, he actually only played 23 times in 2012 because of his own knee and back injuries.
Last season also had its emotionally painful side, as Phil was in the United side against Sunderland, who for a few minutes, thought they had won the Premier League title.
Who could forget his face as the awful reality dawned that City had snatched the title in the dying seconds of the season?
Prospects for 2012/13 and beyond
When you're at Manchester United, one of the luxuries you get is sufficient time to recover from injury. While it can be frustrating to be out for months on end, Sir Alex has learned the folly of bringing back players too soon as he did with Tom Cleverley last season.
Phil Jones is the type of player who will be chomping at the bit to get back into full competitive action. He has a no-nonsense style, physical and combative but with a base of genuine all-round ability.
Surely he will get a start against West Ham on Wednesday, following his 20-minute cameo against Liverpool?
And just as Sir Alex started to feel relaxed about having a nearly full squad available, two of his centre-backs, Nemanja Vidic and Jonny Evans, have picked up injuries again in the Liverpool match. Evans' might have been just a tweak, but the manager won't take any risks with Vidic.
So Phil Jones may finally get another chance at centre-back, especially if he plays well there on Wednesday. He almost certainly will do no better than making the bench for the Spurs match at the weekend, with Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling being the most likely pairing—unless Evans recovers in time.
Surely, once he has proved his fitness, he will become a relative fixture in the side again? The best way for him to get more matches this season is through his versatility, but that may not serve his long-term ambitions best.
But what is his best position?
Phil seems in no doubt that he sees himself as a centre-back in the future.
He may well have been compared to Duncan Edwards by Sir Bobby, but the comparison he won't want is with John O'Shea. That is not taking anything away from "Sheasy," who was a great United stalwart and is now Sunderland captain.
Being a "utility player" will ultimately get him more games and help develop his versatility, but will it confuse his England ambitions or help them?
A growing number of United fans would like to see Kevin Strootman coming to Old Trafford to play a similar role to that which Roy Keane used to fulfill.
There is no doubt that Phil Jones could play in a "box-to-box" role, though not necessarily as well as Keano. His brief appearance on Sunday showed that Sir Alex is happy to use him to shore up midfield.
He has also played at right-back, and indeed, he should surely be the automatic deputy for Rafael in that role. He tackles well and strongly, loves to maraud up the wing, interchanges well and can put over a decent cross.
But while his opportunities to do that would be limited at centre-back, he could do so from a midfield berth.
It seems somewhat surprising that Sir Alex has never used Rio Ferdinand in a midfield holding role. Apart from his obvious ability to tackle, Rio is a footballing centre-half. Jones, on the other hand, may get many of his chances in such a role if Rio, Jonny Evans and Nemanja Vidic remain fit.
Looking forward, though, surely Jones' future is at centre-back. Sir Alex will have pencilled in Evans, Jones and Chris Smalling as his future central defenders after Vidic and Ferdinand have retired. By then, we will have Scott Wootton and Michael Keane deputising in the way that Jones and Smalling do now.
Phil has been favourably compared to John Terry. In fact, he could and should end up eclipsing the former England captain. While he has all the qualities Terry has, he is faster and a better technical footballer. That is why he must settle down as a centre-back soon.
So in summary, Phil Jones' career has been somewhat on hold after his initial burst for United and England.
If he can show he is over his injuries, then he has a very bright future—one that will give Sir Alex selection headaches for all the right reasons for years to come.
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