Will Phil Jones Fulfil Sir Alex Ferguson's Prediction of Greatness?

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Will Phil Jones Fulfil Sir Alex Ferguson's Prediction of Greatness?
(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

On the night Manchester United claimed their 20th league title with a win against Aston Villa at Old Trafford, Sir Alex Ferguson singled out Phil Jones for particular praise.

As reported by The Guardian, an ebullient Ferguson said:

The way he is looking, he could be our best ever player. He may be one of the best players we have ever had, no matter where we play him. At 21 years of age, he is going to be a phenomenal player. He can play anywhere on the pitch. He has such a massive influence, with his instinct and reading of the game. He has a drive about him.

Ferguson is right to be excited by Jones’ potential, but to suggest he might become Manchester United’s best ever player is laughable.

He is good, very good, potentially great, but the best ever? He is not even close.

Is Jones ever going to be better than George Best, Cristiano Ronaldo, Bryan Robson, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Bobby Charlton or Eric Cantona?

Shall we stop? This is getting embarrassing. Of course he is not.

Ferguson’s utterances usually posses some gravitas and are worthy of analysis, but this was a rare misstep.

Interestingly, he does not repeat the grandiose statement anywhere in the 402 pages of his recently published autobiography.

The problem with Ferguson’s prediction is just like what I am doing here: It will always be brought up to assess Jones’ progress as a player and he will simply never be able to live up to it.

Ironically, Ferguson didn’t help Jones’ pursuit of this greatness by moving him all around the pitch in the two seasons they worked together after purchasing him from Blackburn in 2011.

Jones has played at centre-back, right-back and in central midfield, always delivering solid performances, but only ever showing a few glimpses of any potential greatness.

In the early stages of his first season, the 2011-12 campaign, Jones bestrode several games with a rare presence and confidence.

I saw him start at centre-half against Norwich City at Old Trafford in October 2011 and was thrilled by his calm authority, strength and the way in which opponents seemed very small when they came up against him and would almost bounce off him.

Since then he has given some fine displays, and United fans are never concerned when they see his name on the team sheet, but he also hasn’t really pushed on as expected.

At right-back, Jones is a reliable presence and difficult for wingers to beat, but he lacks the pace and attacking intent full-backs now need in the modern game.

In central midfield, Jones performs ably in the holding role and was even tasked by Ferguson to man-mark Cristiano Ronaldo in the Champions League last season. But again, he does not posses the technical ability and passing range to stay there.

His versatility has seen him get more playing time, but it is also a curse. 

At Old Trafford, versatility harmed the careers of Phil Neville, Wes Brown and John O’Shea and ultimately made them disposable.

Jones is a centre-half, and as Ferguson admits in his autobiography, that is where he should play. “At the point we signed Phil, I was unsure what his best position would be. Later I came to feel it would be at centre-half,” Ferguson has written.

It is a conclusion Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes, appears to have quickly reached as well this season.

Jones started Moyes’ first competitive game the Community Shield against Wigan Athletic at Wembley at centre-half, but then had to fill in at right-back when Rafael went off injured and stayed there until the Brazilian regained his fitness later in the season. 

In the last three Premier League games, however, Moyes has started Jones where he should be, in the centre of defence, in the latter two games alongside Jonny Evans, a sign that he is beginning to make the transition from the Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic partnership. 

In the centre of defence is where Jones should remain. It is where his aggression, tackling ability, dogged persistence, size and potential leadership skills are best used.

There seemed to be a movement, influenced by Ferguson’s comments, to imbue Jones with greater powers than he possesses; there were even early comparisons with Duncan Edwards, but the players he most reminds me of are less graceful: John Terry and Tony Adams.

These players might not be especially fashionable or popular, but from the centre of the defence, they both guided their sides to a huge stash of Premier League titles, FA Cups and European trophies.

Can Jones become United's best ever player? Absolutely not. But if kept at the heart of the United defence, he can certainly go on to become one of the club's best-ever defenders. 

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