In order of appearances made this season Chris Smalling (29), Marcos Rojo (26), Phil Jones (24), Paddy McNair (18) Jonny Evans (17) and Tyler Blackett (12) – lists Manchester United’s six centre backs. This season Manchester United have been plagued with injuries which is reflected in the double figure appearances made separately by all six centre backs. But one player amongst these demands keen interest.
Phil Jones is an enigma. A promising acquisition, when signed from Blackburn Rovers in 2011, backed to be a United ‘great’ by Sir Alex Ferguson himself, has turned itself into a scenario where his career at the club has no clear path or direction. The defender in the past has been tipped by Stuart Pearce and Harry Redknapp to be an England captain. He has also been praised by the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton and Fabio Capello for his talent. Granted, at times he does show signs and characteristics of a top quality defender in the making. Yet, at the same time there seems to be something lacking, some stability.
The England international has made a total of 94 appearances for United over four seasons. A time span in which most United fans would have hoped he had cemented a centre back spot in the starting eleven. However, this could not be any further from the case. This season under Louis van Gaal he has only accumulated the third highest amount of appearances out of the five first team centre backs of choice, falling short behind Marcos Rojo and Chris Smalling. But criticism of the slightly stagnated development of the young buck is unfair for a number of reasons.
A glaringly obvious stake to claim is his injury record. For any player of his age it is key to have a consistent run of games to really develop your game and to really take that step up to the next level. This luxury has not been afforded to Phil Jones. As mentioned above injuries have taking their toll on the defender throughout the last three seasons. Of course no fingers can be pointed. This might perhaps be something Jones himself has to take onboard and improve. But it is something that needs to be addressed and solved if he wants to advance and improve further as a red devil.
Secondly, a slightly strange issue which is no more a positive than it is a negative, is his versatility as a player. The qualities that Jones’ possess gives him the ability to play at centre back (the desired position), right back and defensive midfield. These roles for the player have not just allocated to him by Manchester United but also at an International level. It is not often the case that a players expansive range of skills has held them back, but here it seems as though this is a significant problem. Being deployed in several positions has seen Jones’ being used as a utility man rather than a first choice defender. So any Injuries to his teammates in these alternative positions have had further repercussions on Jones’ also.
With Manchester United openly on the transfer market for a top quality centre back, with attempts to sign a defender Mats Hummels and Nicolas Otamendi. Although the signing of Hummels has fallen through it is clear to see that Van Gaal is not fully satisfied with his current options. A complete move for Nicolas Otamendi is looking closer to reality and when he returns from international duty a signature could definitely be on the cards. If that signing did materialise it may see Jones move further down the pecking order with an obvious partnership emerging between Otamendi and his national teammate Marcos Rojo. Even if this is not the case the signing of a new centre back is almost certainly going to happen.
So we arrive back at Phil Jones. Where does this leave him for the 2015/16 season and more to come? Since joining the club not once has his career at United been as much in balance is it is currently. As a player it is in his own hands. No one else can fight his corner or prove his worth. Jones must take it upon himself to sort out his injury problems and consolidate himself has a solid and dependable centre back rather than a ‘jack of all trades’. Competition has and will become tougher but its a feat that he will no doubt relish. After all he is still only twenty-three and if he does collect himself together we can expect a lot more to come from this currently unsteady talent.
This article was researched and written by Zachary Gain. You can follow him on Twitter.