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Who will fill Jones’ role?

Last season saw the coming of age of Lancashire-born Phil Jones, the most recent high-profile product of the Blackburn Rovers youth academy. Jones joined Rovers’ youth set-up aged just 11 and first broke into the first team in September 2009 in a league cup tie at Nottingham Forest. His impressive display at the heart of the defence led him to deputise for regular centre backs Ryan Nelsen and Chris Samba on a number of occasions later that season. Having previously gained limited Premier League experience, 2010/11 was undoubtedly a breakthrough season for Jones. Stepping up into the holding midfield role he started 24 league games, with only a serious knee injury sustained against West Ham United in December preventing him from completing more games in blue and white halves.

His commitment, consistency and natural talent led inevitably to speculation that more illustrious sides were showing an interest in Jones and Rovers fans’ fears were realised in June when Manchester United clinched his signing for fee reportedly in the region of £16.5m. His absence will be felt this coming campaign and replacing the man who quickly became an integral part of the Blackburn line-up will be something that Steve Kean will be hoping to address swiftly this summer.

Serbian international midfielder Radosav Petrović looks set to join to bolster the midfield but this is seen by some as a replacement for Jermaine Jones rather than Phil Jones. With the combative midfielder returning to Schalke 04 and no deal being struck to extend his stay at Ewood Park, Petrović appears the natural replacement to Jermaine Jones, but the question of who will replace Phil Jones still lingers. The answer though may not be as far away as first thought.

When Steven N’Zonzi arrived at Blackburn as a 20 year old in the summer of 2009, very few would have envisaged the immediate impact he would go on to make. Having signed from Amiens SC off the back of their relegation from Ligue 2 to the third tier of French football, N’Zonzi arrived in England as an unknown quantity to all but a few. One year on and he had started 33 league games, as many as any other Rovers player that season, picked up the fans’ ‘Player of the Year’ award and helped guide Blackburn to a top 10 finish. The influence N’Zonzi had on the pitch is demonstrated by the two games in which he made the squad but did not feature; two 3-0 defeats, at Everton in September and Fulham in November. Then boss Sam Allardyce quickly learnt his lesson, starting N’Zonzi in the 23 league games subsequent to the Fulham reversal.

The emergence of Phil Jones and his ascent into the holding midfield role however, limited N’Zonzi’s involvement last season, as did a hamstring injury that forced him to miss three months of the campaign. Despite prolonged periods out of the side, N’Zonzi still featured in 21 league matches last season, allowing for a comparison with Jones to be drawn based on their 2010/11 Premier League statistics.

Defensively, Jones’ committed approach shines through, as he made more tackles per 90 minutes of Premier League action (3.1 to 2.6 for N’Zonzi), made more interceptions (3.8 to 2.3) and completed more blocks (0.6 to 0.4). This could be tempered by considering that Jones occupied the deepest lying midfield berth and therefore was in a position more suited to making interceptions and blocks than N’Zonzi, who typically assumed a traditional central midfield role. However, the number of final third entries made by the two refutes this assumption, with Jones entering the final third just as frequently as N’Zonzi, both venturing forward 6.4 times per 90 minutes.

Jones’ defensive qualities will certainly be missed but the deployment of N’Zonzi in the holding role brings one obvious benefit. At 1.90m tall, N’Zonzi’s height gives him a clear advantage in the air, where he won 57% of his aerial duels last season, while Jones, who cedes 10cm to N’Zonzi, won just 50% of his aerial duels. Were Petrović (1.93m) to arrive and with Chris Samba (1.93m) already a towering presence at the back, the Rovers side for the coming season is beginning to look physically imposing.

Perhaps the most telling comparative though is the number of goals conceded with the pair on the field of play. Jones’ goals against is an impressive 1.3 goals every 90 minutes, compared to Blackburn’s season average of 1.6 goals conceded per game. With N’Zonzi on the pitch however, Rovers shipped a startling 0.8 goals every 90 minutes, effectively halving their chances of conceding with N’Zonzi playing. This is despite Jones displaying the stronger defensive qualities, as borne out by the statistics, suggesting that N’Zonzi utilises a different approach to protect the back four.

In terms of ball retention, Jones’ relative inexperience in midfield is evident, with N’Zonzi coming out on top when analysing the passing statistics. N’Zonzi plays a greater number of passes per 90 minutes (41.1 to 29.8 for Jones) of which a greater number are forward (24.3 to 18.9) and with a higher completion rate (66% to 61%). The paucity of goals conceded with N’Zonzi on the field shows how effective keeping the ball is as a pre-emptive form of defence; if Blackburn can retain possession for longer spells the need to make tackles, blocks and interceptions inevitably reduces.

Jones’ departure should have a minimal impact in an attacking sense, having never registered a senior goal in his 40 appearances for the club. N’Zonzi’s three goals in 52 appearances hardly make him prolific, so assuming the role at the base of the midfield appears apt. Of the 37 shots mustered between them, all but two – of which one was N’Zonzi’s goal against Birmingham City back in August – either missed the target altogether or were placed down the centre of the goal. Neither player made any league assists in 2010/11, with N’Zonzi edging the chance creation stakes with a modest one chance created every other game, adding credence to the thought that he’s best suited for anchoring the midfield.

Given Jones’ initial emergence as a centre half, it is unsurprising that he dominated the defensive statistics last season, while N’Zonzi’s greater experience in the centre of midfield led to superior distribution statistics. Despite their different approaches, both clearly use their strengths to their advantage and are well-suited to the defensive midfield position. While the loss of Jones to the reigning Premier League champions will undoubtedly weaken the Rovers squad for the new season, the presence of a ready made replacement in N’Zonzi should soften the blow.

BRFC fan and football obsessive. Follow me on Twitter at @JWarsop for more of the same, only in 140 characters...
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