Phil Jones so far this season, with the utility man confined to the sidelines through a long-term knee injury since the start of the campaign, but does his theory carry any weight?
The 20-year-old’s versatility was a useful asset to the side last term where he made 29 appearances in the league across the back four and in midfield and a further 12 came in cup competitions. To my knowledge at least, the thing which has held back Jones in his development so far is the precise thing which he is lauded for, his ability to adapt to multiple roles, and he’s struggled to make a position his own at Old Trafford so far, but with the side’s defensive frailties being cruelly and most importantly, routinely exposed already this season, so with that in mind, has his energy and aggression been missed?
Here’s what Atkinson told BBC Sport on the subject: “They’ve had injuries in defensive areas but I think they’ve missed Phil Jones. If he can get himself fit, he might solve a big problem for them. I think he’s an excellent right-back and is probably going to end up at centre-half. But in some of the games I saw him play in midfield last year, he was strong, he could run, he got behind people and he put himself about.”
The 73-year-old logic is flawed at best here to be frank and there’s a reason that he’s been out of a job in football management since a short and deeply unsuccessful stint at Nottingham Forest since 1999. Aside from the obvious incidents involving racial slurs which have prevented him from a return to the game and rightly so, Atkinson looks extremely out-of-touch by lauding Jones simply because he can ‘put himself about’. The game has moved on from that.
Positional ill-discipline is the one thing which has always grated about Jones and his lack of awareness of not only his surroundings but of his role and responsibilities in the side. While marauding runs up the pitch may look good, it’s the gaps he leaves behind himself to be exposed which are most important point to note and there’s a reason why Ferguson has been so reluctant to play him as a centre-back so far during his stay at the club.
Of course, that will come with time but fellow youngster Chris Smalling already looks streets ahead of Jones in terms of his decision-making and awareness, so we can’t lay the blame squarely at the door of his tender years and lack of experience within the game, even if it is a mitigating factor in this instance.
For my money, Jones will never be the saviour of English football that he has often been made out to be and the comparisons to Duncan Edwards in the past, while patently laughable and ridiculous, show the media’s need to create the next big star more than anything actually to do with Jones’ ability, strengths and weaknesses.
If he were to play at centre-back, he’d simply be the latest in a long line of heroic but ultimately flawed English defenders in the mould of John Terry, Jamie Carragher and Terry Butcher – an example of passion being lauded over position; a deeply worrying but intrinsically English trait to praise.
Where Atkinson may have had a point, though, was not about Jones being missed in defence, but further forward in midfield: “When you look at them through the years, they’ve had a Bryan Robson, a Paul Ince or a Roy Keane. I think Fergie would love somebody like that to play in there now. Great players, but someone who will frighten the opposition a little bit when they’ve got the ball. There’s been a lot of criticism of the back four and maybe sometimes it’s because they haven’t got a midfield destroyer in front of them that puts the back four under more pressure.”
While the first-choice central midfield pairing of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick do have the ability to control games against certain teams, they can also be intimidated, rushed and cajoled by more aggressive opponents and you can disrupt the flow of their game, while Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Darren Fletcher all have their flaws too. The side certainly have missed a recognised holder since the days of Owen Hargreaves and Fletcher remains the closest thing they have to one at present, which effects how they press off the ball and win possession back.
The former Blackburn man looks like a true box-to-box midfielder in the making and his naivety is likely to be exposed and punished less frequently in the middle of midfield than it would be in defence. Manchester United have kept just two clean sheets in 10 games so far this season and their problems don’t necessarily lie with the depleted back five or their subsequent lack of form, rather having someone to cut off the supply line further forward and while he may have been touted as a solution to their defensive woes originally by Atkinson, it’s his second statement that he might be missed in midfield which rings a lot truer.
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