TACTICAL THOUGHTS: PHIL JONES

United fans have started to sing: “Jones! Always believe in Phil Jones, he’s indestructible, always believe in…….You are Jones”, (to the tune of Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’), and somehow the song seems appropriate for a player who is gaining a reputation as Mr Reliable.

Phil Jones joined United from Blackburn Rovers in the summer of 2011. The story reported at the time was that United had been tracking his progress but brought forward an offer for the player because a number of other clubs including Liverpool had started to take an interest. At Blackburn Rovers Jones featured as an assured centre-back, earning praise for a number of outstanding performances against leading sides, notably against Chelsea in his debut in 2009-10 season when Rovers earned a 1-1 draw and when he returned from injury the following season in a 0-0 draw against Arsenal at the Emirates.

Since joining United he has earned praise from many good judges around the club, with Sir Bobby Charlton likening aspects of the player to Duncan Edwards. Is there higher praise? Fabio Capello, who famously gave him his England debut, said Jones was “born with talent”. But a manager’s praise should always be taken with a pinch of salt for compliments may all be part of the man management game and a desire to boost a player’s confidence.

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Over the last two years Jones has been used by United in a variety of roles. He has played as a centre-back, a right fullback and as a right sided defensive midfield player. This versatility and his willingness to take on any of the roles asked of him is an asset that has helped to earn his reputation for reliability. Jones is essentially a centre back, but the first evidence that there were other possibilities came in an England game.

That game was a 1-0 victory over reigning World and European champions Spain in November 2011. Capello played a 4-1-4-1 formation with Jones featuring as a central midfield player. As you might expect, Spain had the majority of the possession with England sitting deep. Scott Parker occupied the space in front of the defence in an attempt to stop Spain playing between the lines. Jones and Lampard sat deep as a midfield pair and when England did break out this tended to be via the wide midfield players, the speedy Walcott or the more pedestrian Milner. Two notable points came out of Jones’ performance in this game. The first is discipline. Detailed to undertake a specific tactical role, playing in what was then an unusual position, he stuck to the letter of the script and retaining concentration throughout. The second point relates to situations where Jones had the opportunities to break out on the right hand side. In this he was less successful. It appeared that once Jones crossed the halfway line he lost his way, his play lacking the conviction seen in the defensive third. He did well enough in the game however to contribute to a resolute England display.

Jones suffered a few minor injuries in his first year at United and at the end of the 2011-12 season had a knee operation which kept him out of the first three months of the 2012-13 season. It took a while for the player to get going again, but in the last six months his versatility has really been demonstrated at Old Trafford, so much so that he has become a key big game player.

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Manutdtactics.com noticed a few comments made about Jones by Sir Alex around the turn of the year which led us to believe that the manager had a significant role in mind for the player in the weeks ahead. Around that time Sir Alex heaped praise on Jones on a number of occasions. We commented that this might be part of a strategy to boost the player’s confidence ahead of the tie against Real Madrid, and perhaps Jones would be asked to undertake a specific job to counter Cristiano Ronaldo.

Before that tie, on 20th January United went to Tottenham. This game was clearly a dress rehearsal for the Madrid games. For Ronaldo of Real Madrid, read Bale of Spurs. Sir Alex set up his team in a specific shape to restrict the influence of the opposition’s stand-out player. United adopted a lopsided 4-3-3.

Jones played an important role; he was positioned centrally and slightly to the right to occupy the space in front of the United backline and to pick up whoever moved into that space. United would have expected Bale to drop into this area. Initially Welbeck was also positioned on the right, and dropped deep to help out. United’s concern was Bale supported by an adventurous attacking full-back doubling up and overloading on the right hand side. Jones’ presence removed some of this threat, but with Tottenham playing the unadventurous Naughton at right back the threat came from the other side where Lennon was ably supported by Walker. Welbeck and Cleverley switched to respond after about twenty minutes. Jones moved more towards the centre of the pitch and United took control gaining a 1-0 lead, which they kept until late in injury time at the end of the game.  The lopsided 4-3-3 helped to limit Bale’s influence, and it was Jones occupying a deep inside right position that was the key. Jones’ careful positioning was critical. He stayed close enough to the centre to support and relieve pressure on Carrick, but far enough to the right to get across to restrict Bale when necessary.

So to the Real Madrid tie. Again United set up almost as they had done at Spurs with Jones occupying the space on the right hand side of midfield, deep and just in front of and inside Rafael at full-back. Ronaldo started the game in this area, but finding it difficult to find space he soon switched to a more central position and even popped up on the left. After this change, Ronaldo headed home a goal and United fell behind, although later ended with a creditable 1-1 draw. In both these games Jones had been given an important, if not the key role and in both games he performed it well.

The next game to consider is the home league game against Everton in February 2013. Everton had given United difficult games in the clubs’ two previous meetings. The 4-4 draw towards the end of the 2011-12 season played a significant part in deciding the Premiership, and in the opening game of the 2012-13 season Everton beat United at Goodison Park. In both these matches Marouane Fellaini caused real problems, so when the teams met in February Sir Alex gave Jones the task of man-marking the player. United won this game 2-0 and Felliani was far less influential, further demonstrating Jones’s versatility and effectiveness when given a specific and specialist tactical role. In the Spurs and Real matches Jones was detailed to occupy space; against Everton he was asked to go man-to-man. He followed Felliani everywhere until eventually the Everton player dropped so deep he was picking the ball up on the edge of his own penalty area.

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Despite all this, Jones is best known as a centre-back, and it is likely that this will be the position to which he returns. Currently United have five first team centre-backs. Of these Ferdinand and Vidic are the senior pair. Neither is able to play two games a week now and in the next year or so they can be expected to play less and less. Jonny Evans is clearly the most experienced of the other three and as an academy graduate has been at the club longer. Perhaps this gives him seniority in this group. The other two are Jones and Chris Smalling. Smalling has been at the club one year longer, but has struggled with injury lately and has yet to have an extended run at centre-back. Jones has a more solid physique than Smalling and generally appears more robust.

Jones is big, strong, concentrates well, and is tactically aware; he will follow the tactical script. As a defender, or defensive midfield player he breaks up play by covering and intercepting. He is strong and decisive in the tackle, at times perhaps a little too brave, which results in the occasional injury. He is technically sound, with good close control, he is composed and has good passing accuracy. His experience in playing a range of positions will make him a better player as it will help to develop his awareness of the needs of those playing around him. He seems to lack creativity and imagination going forward, losing his bearings once he crosses the halfway line as a midfielder or defender.

Many consider that you should judge central defenders in pairs. At United the most likely future pairing currently appears to be Evans and Jones. Jones’s soundness and reliability allied to his other qualities means that he has the potential to be a future leader at the back. Perhaps as he becomes more experienced, and his seniority in the squad increases he could be a future United captain. What he needs now is game time in a regular position. Despite his reliability and versatility it is important that he does not become a victim of these qualities.