The Busby Babe continues with the fourth installment of our 2012-13 Manchester United player reviews. Next up is the versatile Phil Jones.
I'm going to be dividing each of the player reviews into three categories: 'what was expected' will be a brief and general explanation of what the expectations were for the player prior to the season's start, 'what we got' will typically be the section with the most depth as this will be the heart of the review, and 'what's next?' will be an examination of the player's future at United.
What was expected
The 2011-12 season was an impressive debut one for the then 19-year-old Jones at United, particularly during the first-half of it. He endeared himself to the Old Trafford faithful with his tenacity, energy, and versatility. Overall, he ended up being a valuable squad member that made 37 appearances across four competitions while he also provided depth at three positions: center-back, right-back, and central-midfield. Ahead of this season, the general thought was that he'd contribute similarly to last season while he would hopefully continue his development. If the opportunity presented itself, perhaps he'd even make one of those positions his own.
What we got
Overall, injuries were a major factor this season as Jones was limited to just 25 appearances across all competitions -- and in total, he only made 16 combined Premier League and UEFA Champions League starts. Various ailments hindered him this season and he admits that it caused him some angst:
"[The injuries have] been frustrating. Certainly at the start of the season. It was tough as I had a back injury and then, in the first or second training session back, I injured my knee again. It was kind of one thing after the next and I felt like, 'is this sort of thing going to end?'. Thankfully, I got over that and played in quite a few games and cup games as well. The cup ties really gave me a chance to have more game-time and I think I've done reasonably well towards the back end of the season."
- Jones | Source: Inside United
There's been some discussion in these parts recently wondering if Jones can be a bit reckless at times with his challenges. That perhaps makes these comments, which is in regards to a challenge against Reading's Jobi McAnuff that resulted in injury, interesting:
"It was silly tackle. I probably should have looked after myself a bit more. I'll learn from it as an experienced head would probably not have done that. But I will learn from that. It is in me. I like making tackles. I like defending. Injuries are going to occur in football so I've probably just been unfortunate, especially at the start of the season. I was gutted to miss the [2nd] Real Madrid game. I tried everything to make the game. I was on the treatment table, having massages, in the pool and in the gym. But it was just too soon for me and I missed it."
Perhaps though, Jones is being a bit harsh on himself. His combative nature is one of his biggest strengths and while it might be prudent to curb his enthusiasm to an extent, it's probably still best to keep playing to his instincts. The rawness of his decision-making, in regards to challenges, should (presumably) be polished to (a point) as he develops and gets more games.
Jones and Sir Alex Ferguson both continually insist that the 21-year-old's future is as a central-defender -- and if I were pressed to project what his prime position will eventually be, I'd offer the same assessment. However, he only made six starts there (combined in the Premier League and Champions League) this season and there are some concerns when he's deployed at that position. The England international is prone to being dragged out of position -- he's overeager at times to engage an attacker too high up the pitch or out too wide -- and he doesn't quite win the percentage of aerial duels that a center-back should (62.2% aerial duel won percentage in league this season). In addition, Jones might not be the full 6'2" that he's listed at. This is nit-picking, though, and it's important to remember that the number of games that we've had to assess him on at his preferred position is very limited. And also, on his Premier League debut for Blackburn Rovers against Chelsea, Jones impressed as a center-back against Didier Drogba -- as an 18-year-old.
There's nothing wrong with Jones' current style as a center-back -- his willingness to come out high to challenge can be a good thing if he's properly reading the situation and if he's paired with a center-back that is adequately providing cover (Rio Ferdinand is excellent at this). In addition, his willingness and ability to bring the ball out the back adds an unpredictable element to attacks as this can create overloads in the build-up to attacks. If Jones improves his positioning -- something which he has seemingly hinted at in his limited appearances this campaign in comparison to the previous one -- and becomes more dominant aerially, then the sky is the proverbial limit for him as a center-back.
Jones also made six starts at right-back this season. His biggest strength at this position is the energy and pace that he possesses since it allows him to cover lots of ground as he rampages up and down the touchline. His positional sense at right-back is decent and he's very willing to get forward in order to join the attack. When he has space to run into, he can carry the ball forward in a hurry and he can power through challenges. In addition, his crossing from the touchline is pretty decent as he gets good pace on the ball on his out-swinging crosses. The only criticism of his crosses is that he has the habit of not looking up to pick out a runner as he often delivers a ball into space without knowing if one of United's attackers is looking to make a run into the zone he's targeting. Overall though, he's solid cover at right-back, even if it's not likely to be his long-term position. If first-choice right-back Rafael were to go down with an injury that forced him out for a month or so, United would likely be fine with Jones deputising.
At the moment, central-midfield is where Jones offers the most tactical value to the club. While United have tremendous quality and depth at center-back (in Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Jonny Evans, and Chris Smalling), and arguably the Premier League's best right-back in Rafael, they lack a combative presence in central-midfield -- this is why some at TBB (me!) think that Marouane Fellaini should be David Moyes' first signing. Jones isn't the distributor that Michael Carrick or even Tom Cleverley is, but he's tidy enough in possession so that he doesn't generally give the ball away in dangerous areas. This is fine if he's surrounded by good passers because his job is to screen for them.
Jones was tremendous at times in the center of the park in partnering Carrick. His best stretch of the season was undoubtedly the tactical jobs that he did on Fellaini, Gareth Bale, and Cristiano Ronaldo during the late stretch of winter. Everton's big-haired Belgian terrorized both United in the season-opener at Goodison Park and the rest of the Premier League this season because of his physicality and aerial prowess in the attacking third. During the return fixture at Old Trafford, from a central-midfield position, Jones impressively erased this threat. He also provided inside cover as a central-midfielder against Bale (when the Tottenham attacker was still being deployed on the left rather than through the middle in attack) and Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabeu. He essentially was the key-man in containing two world-class attackers. These were the sort of disciplined tactical performances that made Fergie love Park Ji-sung and Darren Fletcher so much.
Overall, it was a successful season -- to an extent -- for Jones, despite his injuries and relatively limited appearances. His tactical roles in the center of the park alone against some of Europe's most influential players this season earns him that merit.
For the immediate future, one that will be under a new manager, Jones has expressed that he wants to hit the ground running:
"I think I've only had one pre-season and that was in my first season here so it's important I get a full pre-season under my belt. I need to get fitter and stronger and mentally prepare myself for what will be another tough season again."
Center-back may be his future position, but the likes of Ferdinand, Vidic, and Evans will probably be first-choice to start next season. If the former two show drastic dips in form next season due to age, or perhaps because of injury, then Jones might get the chance to establish himself as first-choice. If not, then he'll hopefully continue to be tremendous depth at center-back, right-back, and in central-midfield -- especially the latter if the club doesn't bring in another combative presence this summer.