In a season full of surprises, perhaps none has been more shocking than the emergence of Phil Jones as the lynchpin of Manchester United’s defense. His first six seasons in Manchester were frustratingly enigmatic, with promising spells of play interrupted all too frequently by injury. Now — finally — Jones is healthy and providing the resolute defensive performances that many have waited years to see.
As recently as last April, Phil Jones looked to be on the outs with José Mourinho. Sidelined with yet another injury and with no return in sight, he had pushed his manager to the brink. Mourinho pointedly criticized Jones for his unwillingness to hurry back to health and play through the pain. Such a public denunciation seemed to put the defender on borrowed time.
Jones’s United future only grew bleaker with the £31 million summer arrival of Victor Lindelöf. The slick-passing Swede looked the perfect partner for Eric Bailly, forming a youthful center-back tandem that would blossom under Mourinho’s tutelage. Lindelöf, though, has proven slow to adapt to life in the Premier League, leaving Jones one last chance to force his way into the manager’s plans.
And he’s certainly made the most of it.
Through the opening two months of the 2017/18 season, Jones has been a rock at the heart of United’s defense. The club has already notched an impressive seven clean sheets in all competitions, showing no signs of defensive fragility even while the attack gets all of the acclaim. Apart from one stumbling miscue on a Stoke City set piece that allowed an easy equalizer, Jones has barely put a foot wrong.
Best of all, he seems to have taken Mourinho’s criticism to heart. He might never shake off the injury-prone label, but he has shown a renewed willingness to stay on the pitch. Even Mourinho seems to have noticed the change, although he cautions that Jones will always need to be carefully handled. He explained, “If we manage to have him safe, protected from injuries, I think potentially he is everything I like in a central defender.”
As Mourinho said, though, it all depends on if Jones can stay healthy. For too many seasons, he has spent more time on the training table than on the pitch. That won’t work any longer at Manchester United. Mourinho likes to play a settled team and Jones will need to keep proving that he can be counted on to play through the niggles and pains if he wants to keep his starting spot.
That brings us to Monday’s news that Jones left the England squad before its upcoming World Cup Qualifiers versus Slovenia and Lithuania with an undisclosed injury. Depending on how you look at it, that could be either good or bad for Manchester United. Is this just the latest in a long litany of physical troubles for the 25-year-old or instead a welcome chance to rest and recover before the Premier League campaign resumes on October 14?
Hopefully this ailment proves as short-lived as the one that kept Jones out of the traveling squad for the CSKA Moscow Champions League trip. He went straight back into the starting eleven for Crystal Palace’s visit to Old Trafford on the weekend and looked no worse for the wear. The anemic Palace attack posed no problem for United’s impervious defense, adding another clean sheet to the tally.
A quiet international break should keep Jones fresh and ready for a difficult October fixture list. It never hurts to remain cautious when it comes to Phil Jones — another injury never seems too far away — but he has taken a big leap forward in the early season and finally looks ready to live up to his potential.