Few will say that Manchester United’s flying start to the season has taken them aback, but there has still been the odd surprise along the way. Jose Mourinho admitted that even he did not expect Romelu Lukaku’s prolific introduction to life at Old Trafford; Anthony Martial looks a different player to the one seemingly carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders last term; Ander Herrera has gone from potential captain to fourth-choice central midfielder. But perhaps the most unexpected sub-plot in United’s story so far has been the outstanding contribution of Phil Jones.
It certainly caught Sarah Winterburn off guard after Jones failed to make her first or second-choice United XI’s. But no one has played a greater role in United’s rock-solid start to the campaign. Mourinho’s machine has kept five clean sheets in six games, and though both Jones and his partner, Eric Bailly, had an off day during the 2-2 draw at Stoke, Jones in particular made amends with a man-of-the-match performance during the 1-0 win at Southampton at the weekend.
Despite the £30million acquisition of Victor Lindelof, Mourinho has kept his faith in Jones and Bailly, with Chris Smalling made to watch from the bench, while Lindelof has been kept even further from the action in the stands. Bailly has carried through his fine form from a hugely impressive debut campaign in the Premier League, but keeping the occasionally rash Ivorian on a leash has been Jones, who has emerged as the leader of the back four.
“If we manage to have him safe, protected from injuries, I think potentially he’s everything I like in a central defender,” said Mourinho in August, when he was one of the three nominations for United’s Player of the Month award, with Lukaku and Paul Pogba. The United boss certainly knows what he likes in a centre-back. His greatest successes have been built around solid foundations provided by the likes of John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Marco Materazzi, Walter Samuel, Gary Cahill – all outstanding centre-halves in the traditional sense. The fact they can use the ball is a bonus to Mourinho. Winning it will always remain the priority.
Jones offers the kind of balance Mourinho appreciates. The England international is the most rounded centre-half at his disposal and the statistics back up the eyewitness testimonies that Jones has been one of United’s shining lights.
As one of a half-dozen Red Devils to play every minute in the Premier League, Jones has by far the highest duel success rate (77.5 per cent – Nemanja Matic is next on 60 per cent); he has made the most clearances and remains the defender with the highest tackle success rate having won 75 per cent of his challenges. Only Lukaku has engaged in more aerial challenges, though Jones’s aerial win rate of 76 per cent is better than any other regular. In possession, of all the players in the division to have started more than three games, only John Stones on 96 per cent has a higher passing accuracy rate than Jones’s 94 per cent.
Of course, as Mourinho hinted, there is always a caveat with Jones. Fitness, not form, has always been his greatest weakness. Under four different managers, Jones has been injured and unavailable for 25 per cent of his six-plus years at Old Trafford, causing him to miss 101 matches in the process. In terms of Premier League appearances, Juan Mata, who joined United two and a half years after Jones, trails the defender by only 11 games. David de Gea, who arrived at Old Trafford at the same time as Jones, has 78 more league matches to his name – more than two full seasons’ worth.
To a lesser extent, Jones’s versatility has also hampered his quest to nail down a place in the United. At Old Trafford, 37 per cent of his appearances have been spent playing out of his favoured position, with 31 games spent at right-back and another 30 as a defensive midfielder. When you consider that in only one season has Jones managed more than 30 appearances in total, that’s two entire campaigns spent playing out of position.
Mourinho, though, said in his first press conference as United boss that he “likes specialists, not multi-functional players”. In Jones’ case, the manager has been true to his word. All of his appearances have come at the heart of Mourinho’s defence, aside from one occasion when he was asked to come off the bench at Rostov to do a job in midfield for the closing stages.
Last season, after Jones admitted that Louis van Gaal didn’t seem to trust him, he benefited from consistency of selection to form a formidable partnership alongside Marcos Rojo, playing 10 Premier League games out of 11 through the latter part of 2016 before injury inevitably struck.
Even this season, Jones has played through the pain to a certain extent, with an ankle injury causing him discomfort. “He’s the kind of player where we need to have him always in our hands, with a lot of care from the medical department,” Mourinho said last month, but the manager will be satisfied with Jones’s determination to contribute despite not being fully fit – a characteristic Smalling and Luke Shaw were criticised for last term.
Gareth Southgate has been equally impressed. The England boss sang Jones’s praises, labelling him the country’s best centre-half after selecting him for the recent World Cup qualifying double header against Malta and Slovakia.
“Not just this season but there was a long period in the middle of last season where I think he has been the best defender,” Southgate said. “He’s got very good composure on the ball. He’s got the reading of the game, he’s aggressive in his defending – which I like – and I think he has got fantastic experience, although he is still only relatively young.”
Many forget that Jones is still just 25 years old, which is testament to the fact he has been around the Premier League for seven-and-a-half years and the England team for six. In that time, he has become more known to many for pulling funny faces and THAT header on the floor, which itself demonstrated the type of desire to defend that many modern centre-halves appear to lack. But with his blend of experience and potential, Jones has to be taken seriously as first choice for club and country. The only worry is whether his body will allow him.