It seems the penny has finally dropped for Phil Jones.
After missing most of this calendar year through injury, the former Blackburn defender fought his way back into contention and is ready to fulfil his potential at last.
His form over the last few weeks has been particularly impressive. After returning against Swansea at the start of November, Jones has got better and better, culminating in a dominant display in Manchester United’s 1-0 over Tottenham on Sunday. He has started seven of the last eight matches, including six in a row, Jones’ best run in the team for over two years. Such is his rise to prominence, Jones was rested for United’s last Europa League fixture to ensure he was ready for the vital Premier League game against Spurs just three days later.
Now that he’s gained the trust of his new manager and begun to put his injury problems behind him, Phil Jones knows he must make the most of this opportunity and start to repay the faith shown in him. He is 24 now. He can no longer consider himself a young player and must take on the responsibility that comes with being a Manchester United player.
“There is criticism and praise all the time. One minute you can be the blue-eyed boy and the next match you can be slated.
“That’s just the way it is. People have different opinions. They are entitled to that and as professional we get on with it and forget about it and concentrate on what we do on the pitch.
“But I have always said that if I get a run of games and stay fit I know what I am capable of. I am not a player who goes on mazy runs, I like to defend. I like to do a job for the team. Hopefully, the manager and everyone around me can see I am trying to do the best for the team.
“I am still learning. I am 24 and am not getting any younger and the whole tag of being a young player is no longer with me anymore. I need to kick on and putting in performances like I have been and improve.
“I need to kick on in terms of playing more games. I have missed a lot over the last couple of years. I love playing football so I want to play as many as I can.
“It’s an old cliché but it is game by game for me.”
Time away from competitive action has focused Jones’ mind. He understands his own game, his strengths and weaknesses and what he can offer the team when he’s at his best. Perhaps it is his own maturity, perhaps it is the right coaching, but Jones’ acknowledgement that he must not embark on mazy runs and that his job as a defender is better when simplified might finally allow him to reach new heights. In years gone by he has often been injured by overexerting himself, throwing himself into challenges or doing too much at any given moment. Watching him now, Jones seems to have abandoned the gung-ho style of defending that plagued his early years at Old Trafford.
One of the most impressive aspects of his return to first-team football is the way he’s taken on the mantle of leadership at the heart of United’s defence. His partnership with Marcos Rojo has been as formidable as it has been surprising and the two United outcasts have been outstanding in recent weeks.
At the start of the season, there did not seem to be a future for either Jones or Rojo at the club. Eric Bailly was the first choice, Chris Smalling became his established partner and Daley Blind was the able deputy. With talk of Axel Tuanzebe and RoShaun Williams being promoted from the junior sides, Jones and Rojo seemed to be out in the cold.
But with the busy festive period fast approaching and the Africa Cup of Nations looming large on the horizon, defensive reinforcements will be vital during an important run of fixtures. Jones was quick to praise his defensive colleague as both have made a compelling case to become a mainstay in Jose Mourinho’s team.
“Marcos has been terrific this season. When I wasn’t playing and watched him I thought he was terrific. It is never easy for an Argentine boy to come over and hit the ground running.
“We knew Spurs was a big game. We said Spurs would be nine points above us if we lost so it was huge. We got the first goal and settled into the game nicely. We dug in deep and were resilient and showed a real desire to defend.
“It was in the back of my mind at 1-0 with 10 minutes to go that you don’t want to drop points again. We were trying to make sure everyone was in the right position, we were concentrating and not switching off. From front to back we defending terrifically well. It was important to keep a clean sheet.”
Manchester United have not lost since Phil Jones returned to the side and they’ve continued to improve every single week. When he signed for United in 2011, Jones was still only a teenager but his potential was there for all to see. He lost his way for a while but somehow, against all the odds, he is finally becoming the excellent defender we all knew he could be.