As per WhoScored.com, Phil Jones was utilized in four different playing positions by Sir Alex Ferguson last term.
This constant use of Jones as a utility man has converted the England international into more of a John O’Shea-esque player- jack of all trades, but master of none.
However, so as to allow his true potential to manifest, David Moyes will do well by choosing a fixed position for Jones and Red Mancunian looks at all the possibilities.
WhoScored.com’s data suggest that Jones made six appearances as a right-back last season, earning an average rating of 7.18 while plying trades as a full-back.
Although the website rates the 21-year-old’s outputs very highly, Jones is not an effective right-back.
Jones possesses explosive speed, which allows him to get into promising positions on the flank. He beat his marker on exactly half of the occasions last term. By contrast, Patrice Evra wins 46% of his take-on’s, and Rafael Da Silva 60%. Moreover, Jones’s crosses also pose a threat in the penalty area.
But Jones lacks the required technical skills. He sometimes doesn’t know what to do when running with the ball and can struggle for ideas. His first-touch when receiving the ball on the run and movement with the ball, both, leave much to be desired.
Finally, the England international is not a confident passer, limiting scope for link-up plays and his overall impact in the attacking third. As his pass-chart against Southampton shows, Jones stutters when making forward passes, particularly against high pressing sides.
Jones also lacks ample football intelligence as he gets drawn out of position easily and sometimes hastily dives into tackles and challenges. This can make him susceptible to opening up channels.
This is Jones’s preferred playing position.
“I have maintained all along that centre half is where I feel most comfortable,” he said during an interview in January.
Jones is a robust defender and can shut down any attack in a matter of seconds. His heading abilities are improving, while his tackling and interception skills are also showing signs of maturity.
The Englishman is best used when he is told to mark a particular player like Christian Benteke during United’s 3-0 win over Aston Villa in April. This is owing to that Jones gets easily attracted towards the action area, as mentioned above.
When he has been assigned a marker, Jones takes the onus to literally follow him all over the pitch. Although, he leaves space at the back end in doing so, Jones completely shuts down the striker by tracking him throughout the game and giving him little time on the ball.
Against United, this compelled Benteke to drop back till the half-way line to just shrug off Jones, leaving Villa without a target man upfront.
When he doesn’t have someone in particular to mark, Jones is confused as to what to do and hence, always pops up in the action area, seemingly unaware of his surroundings and consequently, opening huge channels. Thus he can be often caught in a no-man’s land.
To challenge for a starting spot as a center-back, there are some avenues Jones will need to improve- first being his tendency to make unwarranted tackles.
A mistimed challenge can easily enable the striker to get around Jones and exploit acres of space, albeit, in these instances, Jones uses his pace well to recover.
Second, is his occasional lack of concentration, which enabled Benteke to make a couple of untracked run behind Jones during the Villa game.
Finally, Jones can’t get the ball out of defense. His passing lacks vision and as one can see from the following image, he’s unwilling to make forward progressions with the ball.
The author believes that defensive midfield is probably Jones’ best position at United.
Jones likes to be involved in the action zones, press up the pitch and his high work ethics and pace allow him to do so.
If he plays with a deep-lying midfielder who can close down the space between lines (Michael Carrick), Jones will have the license to pressurize and be heavily involved in the action zone.
In fact, his aggressive or “clumsy” tackling style might help the former Blackburn Rovers star excel as a “destroyer”. Not to forget, his cautious passing approach is best suited for this position as he will need to do is break up plays and quickly supply ammunition to Carrick.
Even if he’s drawn out of position, the back-four will remain compact, while Carrick can close down the space in front of the defense.
Box-to-box role can also work for Jones as he likes to venture in the final third, but his attacking instincts haven’t really stood out, and he surely can’t operate as a “shuttler” due to his poor technique on the ball.
Moreover, Jones can do exceedingly when marking someone in the midfield. He was used in this role effectively by Fergie against Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspur last term, to nullify Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale respectively.
But the issue here is that as the “destroyer”, when he leaves his original position, Jones will do so to get involved in the action area.
However, when playing as a designated marker, Jones might get drawn out of position just by the movement of his counterpart. This might happen even when his counterpart is not in the action area, and hence, United’s midfield can become vulnerable.
The following images explain the concern.