Chris Smalling and Phil Jones Offer Manchester United Defensive Stability

Paul Ansorge@@utdrantcastFeatured ColumnistOctober 18, 2015

Manchester United's English defender Phil Jones (L) vies with Everton's Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku during the English Premier League football match between Everton and Manchester United at Goodison Park in Liverpool, north-west England, on October 17, 2015. AFP PHOTO / OLI SCARFF

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Before the season began, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones seemed the obvious central defensive partnership among Manchester United's ranks.

However, Saturday's trip to Goodison Park saw the England pair start together for the first time this season. I have previously suggested that the partnership of Daley Blind and Chris Smalling should be United's first choice, but with their performance against Everton, Jones and Smalling did a good job of stating their case to be United's defence. 

Jones and Smalling on international duty
Jones and Smalling on international dutyLaurence Griffiths/Getty Images

In his post-match press conference, Louis van Gaal spoke of his “total human being principle” when it comes to player selection. Perhaps his decision to sideline Blind and his fellow countryman Memphis Depay was influenced by the Netherlands' failure to qualify for Euro 2016 during the international break.

Coming so swiftly on the back of the defeat to Arsenal, both players have had to deal with a lot of disappointment in a short space of time. Memphis' form certainly warranted a break from first-team action and up against Romelu Lukaku, Van Gaal's decision to play Jones ahead of Blind made good sense.

The decision was amply rewarded. As always, defensive statistics are unable to tell anything like the full story of a performance, but Jones and Smalling both put up good numbers. Between them, they made 13 clearances, nine of which came from inside United's box. 

Chris Smalling @ChrisSmalling

Best way to respond with a convincing victory! We leave happy and already targeting our next win 🔴🔴🔴🔴🔴 @ManUtd #MUFC http://t.co/LCbro2k4sh

They were dominant in the air—five of those clearances were headers, and Jones won five of his six aerial duels. Smalling contributed four interceptions, crucial in breaking up Everton's attacking rhythm.

However, statistics do a poor job of conveying the intangible sense of presence both men provided. Smalling's solid defensive performances no longer come as a surprise, but Jones' apparent calm under pressure was perhaps a little less expected.

United appeared to catch Everton on an off day, admittedly. Roberto Martinez expressed his hope that it was not a response to Howard Kendall's passing, but Goodison Park did feel flat, with little noise coming from the home fans and little goal threat coming from their attack.

Lukaku and Ross Barkley took plenty of shots—nine between them—but were only able to get three on target.

Phil Jones @PhilJones4

Best way to bounce back is a result and performance like that! Fans were unreal again! 👏🏽 #MUFC @ManUtd ⚽️🔴 http://t.co/kY7pY6HCaw

However, even short of their best, Everton had plenty of players in their lineup who required defensive attention. Jones and Smalling were ably supported by Marcos Rojo and Matteo Darmian from full-back, and were able to call upon the lightning-quick reflexes of David De Gea. His feet-first save from Lukaku was a particular highlight.

All of this leaves Van Gaal with a decision. In theory, losing Blind from centre-half affects United's ball retention, and Blind's eye for a key pass has been vital on occasion so far this campaign.

Jones did a fine job of ensuring United retained possession, completing 92 per cent of his passes. Smalling's distribution was much more wayward—unusually so for him during the Van Gaal era. He gave the ball away with 24 per cent of his passes. However, he was able to contribute to United's attacking play, providing the assist for Morgan Schneiderlin's opening goal with a neat chest pass.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 17:  Chris Smalling of Manchester United and Romelu Lukaku of Everton during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Manchester United at Goodison Park on October 17, 2015 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by James
James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

For Van Gaal, of course, this comes under that classic football management heading of good problem to have. Jones, Smalling and Blind will all be required as the season progresses and injuries take their toll.

Against CSKA Moscow in midweek and Manchester City on 25 October, though, it should be Smalling and Jones who take the pitch. They passed their combined audition with flying colours against Everton. Ander Herrera may have deservedly attracted his manager's post-match praise, but he will surely have been delighted with his centre-backs too.

October's tough tests have yielded distinctly mixed results so far, but the victory at Goodison should influence the makeup of United's defence for the near-term future.

All quotations obtained firsthand. All advanced statistics per Squawka.com.