Manchester United: 4 Reasons Why Phil Jones Is a Defender, Not a Midfielder
That's not to say the young Englishman has been faultless. He's had his share of mid-match lapses, of course, understandable for a 19-year-old making his first steps at any new club, but he's shown a responsible, level-headed maturity and fearless determination that belies his years on the pitch.
With United's midfield lacking some combative grit, and Jones' past experience playing as a defensive midfielder for Blackburn, some are calling for him to be played higher up the pitch alongside the likes of Tom Cleverley, Michael Carrick and Anderson.
Such an idea isn't purely fanbase conjecture, either. Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Fabio Capello have played Jones as a midfield terrier for club and country, respectively.
Seeing the young utility man panicking about the middle of the pitch just doesn't seem right, though. Looking at his strengths and the weaknesses he can easily overcome, it's clear Phil Jones' destiny lies at the heart of defense, not midfield.
Here are four reasons why Manchester United's latest No. 4 will ultimately become a defender, not a midfielder!
Jack-of-All-Trades, Master of One?
With his enthusiasm, intelligence and solid skill-set, Phil Jones has quickly become a victim of cliche. He is a player "who could play anywhere" after some impressively "all-action" appearances for Manchester United so far this season.
Away from the rigid discipline of Blackburn, Jones looked like a player unleashed to rampage and roam free in United's more fluid system. Aside from his adventures down the right flank and into the opponent's box, though, Jones' key attributes are still his commitment, bravery and clean aggression when defending his own half.
John Terry has long been the young player's go-to comparison man, and whilst I can't speak for his off-the-field activities, Jones certainly shares that same "never-say-die" on-the-pitch determination to see off every challenger and dangerous delivery regardless of the physical cost to his own body.
He is a tenacious and tireless defender who tracks, closes and tackles with the urgency and intensity required without losing himself in the moment. Whilst he has certainly shown his expertise as a footballer of late, Phil Jones remains a skillful, ball-laying defender rather than the all-quarters dynamo many have claimed.
He Wants to Become a Defender
Before we decide for ourselves where Phil Jones does his greatest work, we should surely give the player the chance to have his own say on matters.
In August, when asked if he saw himself as a defender, rather than a utility man or midfielder, Jones replied:
“That is definitely where I play my best football. I like to see the game in front of me and read the play. When the manager asked me to move into midfield at Blackburn it was strange. I didn’t expect it. It took a few games to adapt to that role and the positions I should take. But if I was asked to do that here, I would feel comfortable with it.”
Phil Jones in midfield is certainly an option, especially for a manager who rotates not only his players but their roles within the team as regularly as Sir Alex, but his presence in the middle of the team should be nothing more than a contingency measure or tactical sucker-punch.
In seeing himself as a defender, Jones clearly holds a personal tendency, which will affect his ambitions within United's squad and any personal emphasis he puts into his training and footballing education.
To make it to the very top in the game, a player must have a hunger, drive and focus equal to, or above, their talent. For these reasons, Phil Jones will naturally take more notice of his defensive lessons and opportunities than analysing his progress from a midfielder's perspective.
All He Currently Lacks Is Positioning
Phil Jones is both a physical beast and a talented, skillful footballer. At the back, his speed, tenacity and commitment to the team and his own personal defensive responsibilities mean that he is the player sprinting back to make that last ditch tackle. He is the one who will throw himself at the ball to deflect it out wide or sprint forward to close down the next oncoming threat.
These are all commendable qualities to have as a defender, but positional discipline and awareness are what elevates such values from headless chicken heroics to cornerstone talents of a truly safe, secure and dependable defender.
If you can anticipate the opponent's actions, options and desires, and dominate and manage space on the pitch beyond purely second-hand reaction tackles, you become much more than a ball chasing spoiler.
Defending is an art form when performed by its greatest champions. The likes of Baresi, Maldini and, in the modern game, Thiago Silva are all clear examples of how to play the beautiful game outside of its obvious attacking instincts.
At the moment, Jones can sometimes be too clever for his own good in trying to play the ball in every context, or too impulsive, chasing down lost causes and probing attackers who then create space for their onrushing colleagues in support. Luckily for the young Englishman, he has Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as his personal defensive tutors to instill that overwatch awareness and appreciation within his game.
Whilst at present he may be strictly artisan, Phil Jones' education will be one of refinement, culture and class. With his natural skills, abilities and talents, positional intelligence will come, and when it does any notion of playing the defender in midfield will be laughable.
By that point, he would be well on his way to becoming one of the greatest centre-backs in the world.
Modern Midfields Require a More Measured Approach
If his defensive positioning is suspect, his space management in midfield is non-existent.
So far this season, Jones has looked lost when pushed up into the middle of the park. He responded to any lack of competency with hyperactivity, constantly chasing down rather than zoning out the opposition. Against Liverpool, Charlie Adam was shrewd enough to use this manic yomping to his advantage, pulling Jones out of the game and away from the thrusts of the Liverpool midfield.
Positioning, or at least an understanding and awareness of it, are perhaps even more important in the midfield. With action zones all around them, midfielders must be on top of their defensive duties, passing options and any potential avenues of attack. The modern midfield game is one that requires a measured approach.
Jones lacks the subtly and calculated calmness to exist as anything other than a defensive stop-gap in midfield. He will happily snap at the heels of his targets all day long like some rapid-fire Terrier, but asking him to play the role fully, and take control of a game from the middle of the park is currently beyond him.
Defence is different. As Jones said himself: "I like to see the game in front of me and read the play." Such a vantage point allows him to inform his own actions and approach in line with the bigger picture around him. In the busy battlefields of the centre, such luxuries are rarely forthcoming. A player's vision and awareness must be second-nature and near supernatural in the elite divisions, able to stop a run, opportunity or weakness instantly, and know how to react accordingly.
The Real Question...
Maybe we're asking the wrong question here? Rather than pondering whether Phil Jones has a future in midfield over defence, we should be considering whether he could ultimately become United's first choice right back.
With Rafael seemingly out of fitness and form, Phil Jones has stepped up to become Sir Alex's preferred option on the right flank.
This could all just be part of his defensive apprenticeship, however, and a usefully effective opportunity to give such a prospect the game time he requires to flourish at the club.
The modern full-back is arguably one of the most free positions of most attacking formations in the game today. These days, the flanks of the back four are given evermore license to attack with flair, width and improvised ideas from the rear. This has meant that players who at one time may have been developed into the stereotypical English box-to-box midfielder are finding a new lease of life in the full-back position, interpreting the position to fit their own strengths.
Could Phil Jones ultimate position be that of right back or do you see him more of a central defender? Perhaps you disagree completely and think he could do a job and add some much needed steel to United's midfield? Why not tell us what you think in the comments section below?