There is an unfamiliar angst hanging in the air around Old Trafford as the Red Devils try to get used to life without Sir Alex Ferguson. A period of transition was inevitable, for whoever stepped into the Scots’ giant shadow, but that hasn’t stopped new boss David Moyes from facing intense scrutiny. With Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester City forming three of United’s first five EPL fixtures, Moyes could have been forgiven for expecting a bit more patience while he tries to get a better grasp on his playing squad.
Interestingly, despite rotating much of his squad through the early season, Moyes had relied upon veteran defender Rio Ferdinand in all of United’s first six league fixtures. The ageing centre-back had been handled with great care by Ferguson in recent years, and the Englishman duly suffered a “minor” groin injury in United’s insipid home defeat to West Bromwich Albion. Ferdinand’s absence from duty opened the window for Jonny Evans to get a Champions League start against Shaktar Donestk. On the weekend against Sunderland however, it was Phil Jones who partnered Nemanja Vidic and, in my opinion, this should be United’s standard defensive partnership moving forward.
Since arriving from Blackburn in the summer of 2011, Jones has played in a variety of positions for United. The Red Devils’ depth at centre-back has seen the Englishman played both in a holding midfield role and at right back, where he’s started four Premier League matches this season. Centre-back is where Jones is most comfortable though, and with natural right back Rafael returning to full fitness, it’s now time for the Englishman to be given the chance of making the position his own.
Statistically, Jones is outperforming his older colleague even from his less favoured right back berth. Ferdinand may be a perfect five for five from his tackle attempts, but he’s only attempting them at a rate of once every 108 minutes. Jones meanwhile is winning a tackle every 50 minutes and at a still robust 89 percent rate. It’s more of the same comparing ground duels as Ferdinand has an edge percentage wise – 62 to 56 percent – but Jones is again winning them at a much faster rate, every 26.5 minutes compared to Ferdinand’s 67.5.
Ferdinand’s experience surely makes him a more acute reader of play, but the numbers suggest Jones is no slouch in this area either. His ten recorded interceptions are less than Ferdinand’s 12 but, yet again, being performed at a faster rate of once every 39.7 minutes to Ferdinand’s 45. Meanwhile, it’s almost a dead tie when in possession: Ferdinand’s passing rate of 89 percent only has the slightest advantage over Jones’ 88 percent.
Lest you think Jones is simply completing more challenges because he is playing at right back, compare the current challenge rates of Ferdinand and Jones with Evans’ numbers from last year. In 2013/2014, Ferdinand is winning a challenge every 23.5 minutes while Jones is succeeding every 12. Jones’ rate is much more in line with Jonny Evans’ 2012/2013 season, when he won a challenge just under every 13 minutes and recorded an interception every 40.5 minutes.
Beyond just comparing individual numbers however, it’s important to consider the impact on United’s entire back four. To me, the numbers above indicate that Jones’ energetic play currently makes him a better fit to partner Vidic than Ferdinand. United’s current captain has been dogged by his own injury problems as he’s aged. Jones’ athleticism would complement the Serb’s best attributes – aerial strength (76% win rate) and marshalling the defence – quite nicely. Furthermore, with Rafael back, the Brazilian’s better technique gives United more attacking width down the flank than with Jones at right back.
The point here is not to bash Ferdinand in any way. Few record-breaking transfers can truly claim to have justified their price tag, but British football’s most expensive defender has surely been worth every pound to United over the years. Quite simply, Jones is starting to blossom into the player Ferguson envisioned when he purchased the defender from Blackburn. With Ferdinand’s mobility extremely limited, Jones is now United’s best option for both the present and the future. Moyes may still be working out the kinks of his squad, but the back line of Rafael, Jones, Vidic, and Patrice Evra that featured against Sunderland is the platform upon which he should build.