At the end of last season, and during this year’s transfer window, it wouldn’t be at all uncommon for a Manchester United fan to think that Phil Jones will be leaving the club, and not many of them would be making too much of a fuss about it. Jones arrived at United aged 19 with the billing of a hugely talented youngster, with Sir Alex Ferguson going so far as to say that he believed Jones has the makings of a future United captain from the moment he signed, and in his second season, Ferguson even said that Jones could be United’s “best ever player”. But after five years at the club, Jones hadn’t done anything of note at the club.
In all fairness to Jones, his path of development has been a pretty rocky one, with injuries persistently getting in the way. It became a serious problem last season, when he only managed 13 senior appearances for the club, and only made his first appearance of this season at the start of this month. He hasn’t had a regular chance to establish himself, but with the chances that he has had, he doesn’t seem to have won over the United support. And last summer, with the signing of Eric Bailly, Daley Blind’s Player of the Year nominated performances in central defence, and rumours of other defenders, such as Southampton’s Jose Fonte, many expected him to leave. But, as we all know, Jones is still at the club.
Flash forward a couple of months to today, he finally has a real chance to stake his claim in the first team. Bailly suffered a knee ligament injury in United’s defeat to Chelsea, which keeps him out until around Christmas, and Chris Smalling’s broken toe looks like it’s going to keep him out for at least a few more weeks. With these two players out of the picture, Jones now has the best chance he could hope for, And it is imperative that he takes it.
If Bailly does recover in time, there’s a good chance that he will be leaving to join the Ivory Coast team to play in the African Cup of Nations. While this seems like another chance for Jones, it could also spell the beginning of the end of his time at the club. United could simply sign a new defender to cover for Bailly’s absence in this period. This defender would of course stay with the club after Bailly’s return, meaning another roadblock for Jones. All this could be avoided if he performs in the next month, before his teammates’ return.
Jones has been given his chances so far, starting in United’s last two games against Swansea City, earning Jose Mourinho’s praise for stepping up after a lengthy injury layoff, and Saturday’s draw at home to Arsenal. And he has made the most of those opportunities, putting in solid and composed performances. He didn’t do anything extraordinary, but he wasn’t tested much in both games.
His performances in those two games should be good enough to earn him other chances in upcoming games, but he needs to make sure that this is his standard of performance from here on out, in games where he would carry bigger weights. It’s nothing bad for a defender to put in quiet, unassuming performances like he has. It’s certainly better than how he normally is, making last-ditch recovery challenges following his own mistakes. If he keeps these performances up, and steadily improves on it, there’s always a chance that he’ll be a real contender to be a permanent starter.
Of course, it won’t be easy. There’s always options in the transfer market that United could go for in just over a month that could fill the role, and up until now there’s not yet any evidence that suggests Jones is true United centre half material, or indeed any better than either of the two players sidelined at the moment. But now, Jones has the opportunity to prove himself. An opportunity that not very many players can get. This should the biggest last-ditch challenge he has ever made, to rebuild his United career
With just a hint of irony, a player whose chances have been hampered by injuries, now gets his chance because of injuries. The only question here is: will he take it?