On Saturday, Manchester United overcame Sean Dyche’s Burnley in a tightly-contested affair where United battled through waves of half-chances and set plays into the box to claim all three points, thanks to the spectacular effort from Anthony Martial and a back five that kept its fifth consecutive clean sheet – 14 overall for the season.
It is remarkable how well Manchester United defend these days. Aided by a world-class goalkeeper and a manager whose natural tendency including building on an experienced and rigid defensive line, it is not a surprise that United have conceded the fewest goals – not just in 2017/18 but also in the calendar year 2017. At the heart of it all, however, has been United’s Phil Jones and Chris Smalling – ironically the final few first team members left at the club who have won the league under Sir Alex Ferguson, almost four-and-a-half years ago.
Phil Jones, a case in point in this piece has particularly excelled whenever he has played this season and unlike his entire career at Manchester United, the 25-year old has been involved a lot in this campaign with the first team – on the pitch rather than having treatment off it. Jones has appeared in 19 of 24 games in 2017/18, already outstripping the previous two campaigns when he mustered only 18 and 10 respectively.
His improved fitness in the last few months has paved way to regular game time under the Portuguese manager and has, in turn, resulted in the growth of the footballer himself. Jones is arguably the best defender at the club now and while there was never a point where his footballing talent was questioned as much as his ability to remain fit, for he has always been a good footballer who could adapt at multiple positions – provided he could play.
On Saturday, man-of-the-match nominee Phil Jones stood tall at the back – in a game which progressively got harder, testing the resolve of United as time went by – who were not in a position to drop any more points in the Premier League. Two years ago they would have cracked and let in an equaliser. But under Mourinho, the Red Devils have a structure about them which allows the manager to chop and change the personnel as he wishes, with little negative impact on the performance levels.
Since 2013/14 under Moyes, year-on-year Phil Jones had regressed – what with reduced playing time in a career plagued by multiple injuries to his foot. Once thought of by Sir Alex as someone who could become Manchester United’s greatest player of all-time, Jones’ career was in jeopardy when Mourinho took over, purely for the uncertainty that came with him which often outweighed his qualities on and off the ball.
And for a manager who usually preferred a settled starting 11 with very little rotation, this was only going to go one way. But Jones persevered under the demanding coach and came out of it a better and battle-hardened footballer.
Under the Portuguese Phil Jones has found someone who has managed him the way he should be. Jones has won a higher percentage of his aerial duels, ground duels – also improved on his distribution averaging a significantly higher pass completion rate of 91% when compared to his previous years. After all, this is a guy who was often deployed in central-midfield by Sir Alex – famously in Santiago Bernabeu in the Champions League when the former Blackburn man was tasked with nullifying the threat of Cristiano Ronaldo, a job in which he exceeded expectations, much to the delight of the supporters.
He may face another opportunity in a similar ilk under Mourinho in the Champions League last 16 – which is set to resume in February. And one could expect him to be up for it – as he was five years ago – with more maturity and experience he has gained in the last two years under the tutelage of the Portuguese.