Phil Jones usually comes across as an interesting footballer and an incredibly boring human being. Interesting footballer because there are not many players at Manchester United that divide opinion as much as this 24-year old center-half does, purely in footballing terms. Boring human being because nobody knows what he is up to in his spare time when he is not injured, and such a time is admittedly rare.
When Jose Mourinho took over, it was almost inevitable that he was going to bring in a defender that suited his idea of a center back – big, strong, quick and a defender that actually defends and likes to defend, put his head where it hurts, so on and so forth. So, Eric Bailly was bought from Spanish club Villareal for a hefty sum of money for someone that was so young and inexperienced but it was easy to see why the Portuguese wanted to bring the Ivory Coast defender in and immediately put him in the starting eleven, for he took to the club and the league sooner than anyone would have imagined, much to the delight of the supporters and the manager himself. There was a player who Manchester United could rely on for the next ten years, voila.
Going back to the time when Phil Jones was signed, from Blackburn Rovers as a 19-year old, the initial thoughts were fairly similar. Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson thought they were buying a defender who was young, physically strong and robust and had the skill-set that had him down as the defensive lynch-pin of Old Trafford in the years to come. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way, yet. The 24-year old did have his moments when he was at his fittest for a good period of time in his first two seasons at Manchester United, most notably in the two back to back games against Tottenham Hotspur spearheaded by Gareth Bale and a Champions League Last 16 encounter at the Bernabeau against Mourinho’s Real Madrid, Phil Jones excelled at stifling the opposition and sometimes a specific player, when Manchester United needed to. And that was three years ago.
But now, Phil Jones has done something that was unthinkable a year ago or 18 months ago. He’s starting football matches on a regular basis, and for the first time in a long time the former Blackburn defender has started four games in succession, three in the Premier League and one in Europe. And the performances have been steadily improving with every game he’s played, not unlike his fitness levels. It was also encouraging from his perspective, that even Mourinho, who has been very vocal about his disappointment with some of the players he has inherited from Louis van Gaal, sounded largely positive when he talked about Jones’ return to the first team squad. The Portuguese said,
“Sometimes defenders now think the most important ability is to build from the back. It is not. The most important thing is to defend and that’s what I like about Phil Jones. He likes to defend, he wants to play as a defender. That is the main thing. I think Phil has a good personality too. He showed that at Swansea in a moment when he was not really ready to play. He stepped in because we were having difficulty filling the positions and showed what he could do. Now with a couple of weeks of football and training he looks very sharp and the team is safe. I know he was very highly rated at Blackburn Rovers when he was younger and it is good to have him back after so many injuries.”
If Mourinho wants his defenders to defend first and not overdo things on the pitch by trying to play the ball out from the back, then he may look no further than Jones to fill in as one of the two center-halves at the heart of his back four. If the 24-year old can keep himself fit and paired with an experienced partner, there is no reason why he cannot become one of the better center-halves in the country in the long run because he has got all the tools available in him to perform at the highest level, particularly under a manager with a reputation to create teams that are generally hard to break down. In these last two weeks, the signs have been positive in a campaign where much else has been anything but.
Sir Alex Ferguson may have over-exaggerated when he said Phil Jones could become one of the greatest ever at Manchester United but the English international could definitely become one of Mourinho’s best players in this sticky period, if he kept doing what he is doing at this moment in time.