José Mourinho’s Manchester United are undoubtedly the most abstruse United team of the Premier League era. The statistics, if you are into that sort of thing, tell us that they really shouldn’t be winning as many games as they are. Watch them in the flesh and you’ll probably come to similar conclusions.
Playing poorly and winning has become their trademark. None of the machine’s parts seem to function all that well, but forward momentum is still maintained somehow.
For instance, United have the league’s second meanest defence without having any reliability or consistency in terms of who they can pick at centre back. Having David de Gea and a routinely conservative coach help to compensate for what’s lacking at the heart of United’s backline, but even still, United’s defensive record is remarkable given the circumstances.
With both members of last season’s preferred centre back pairing Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo perpetually injured this year, and new signing Victor Lindelöf serving his apprenticeship, the only slightly less injured Phil Jones (22 appearances) and Chris Smalling (27 appearances) have topped the Premier League appearance charts for their positions in 2017/18.
It certainly looks like they have become choice one and two because there were only two to choose from, but have their performances shown they are worth persisting with as a pair?
The Jones and Smalling partnership comes heavily wrapped in comedy duo connotations and why wouldn’t it?
Phil Jones flops about the pitch, using facial expressions to thwart attacks and putting in slide tackles with his head. It’s genuinely fun to watch him chase his touches as he careers forty yards up the centre of the pitch, his features twisted pink with panic. Sometimes he’s really good, though quite often it looks like someone else is controlling his body from the stands with an inverted D-pad.
Chris Smalling has been labelled a “natural defender” which is the kindest way I’ve heard to describe someone who is bad at the footballing part of football. Smalling is so bad at the footballing part of football, that England, the inventors of footballers who can’t football, dropped him due to his inability to football. That’s like being told you can’t sing well enough to mime.
Smalling usually saves his most potent self-destructive artistry for the biggest games too. His list of gaffs, own goals and red cards in matches of significance grows by the season.
When it comes to building strong defensive foundations, the pair are generally more Keystone than cornerstone, but sometimes they will put in a performance together that will make you wonder, what if?
In United’s FA Cup Semi Final win over Spurs at Wembley, both Jones and Smalling were excellent. But as good as they were that day; the display only balanced the deficit they held after they were equally atrocious together against the same opponent at the same venue just a couple of months earlier.
So what performance do you hang your hat on? Which game did we see the real Jones and Smalling? Paradoxically, the answer is probably both.
What must their team mates think when they line up alongside two players who are just as likely to put in a two out of ten performance as they are a nine? When Smalling and Jones start to wobble in a game, their nervousness is infectious – we’ve seen it happen on numerous occasions.
The pair have never been able to maintain the high standards they have both hit in patches. Just when you think a corner has been turned, the inevitable clanger arrives and the reset button is hit.
There’s no reason to think that the required consistency and reliability will come either. Chris Smalling is 28, Phil Jones 25 and barring a mutant like leap in their evolution, they are probably at “this is probably as good they are going to get” ages.
From Jones’ perspective, there is merit in the argument that injuries keeping him off the pitch have scuppered his development on it, though his fitness record feels more like another reason to get rid rather than a reason to mourn what could have been. Jones has averaged just 20 league appearances a season since he moved to United from Blackburn seven years ago.
Ironically, it’s injuries that have kept Jones in the team more often this season. Had Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo been fit for the majority of the campaign, Jones might have played even less than he has done.
The year of his arrival from Blackburn feels particularly pertinent, in that United largely have the same player on their hands as they did when Jones signed the contract in 2011. If there has been an improvement in his game, it’s been negligible at best. Jones arrived as a raw, burly, physically strong player prone to rash moments and rushes of blood. That’s exactly the kind of player he still is.
Similarly, Chris Smalling arrived from Fulham in 2010 as a player with a well-rounded defensive skillset, but was lacking in the technical aspects of his game. Would that be an unfair description of Smalling today?
Ultimately, Phil Jones and Chris Smalling don’t tick many of the boxes you’d expect top level, title winning defenders to tick and United should be looking for upgrades this summer. José Mourinho’s selection inclinations last season would suggest he thinks along the same lines, though with more pressing recruitment needs in other areas this summer, Jones and Smalling might get another year’s reprieve.
Nevertheless, both will eventually need to be replaced if United are to claw their way back to the summit of English football.