There’s no doubt, Everton’s dominant performance warranted the win in this season’s opening game. Perhaps more significant, however, was Sir Alex Ferguson’s choice of formation. For the past three years or so, Ferguson has played the 4-4-1-1 system – two banks of four and Rooney in behind one of Welbeck, Berbatov or Hernandez. What we saw against Everton was a change in formation all together. A 4-2-3-1 (effectively a 4-2-1-3 when attacking) was deployed. Scholes and Cleverley sat in deep lying central midfield positions, Kagawa just in front in the ‘number ten’ role and a dynamic front three – split across the width of the pitch – including Rooney, Nani and Welbeck.
What was clearly missing was somebody in midfield capable of nullifying Everton’s Marouane Fellaini. Although Cleverley and Scholes are both excellent distributors of the ball, they clearly lack the physical attributes that were required to disrupt the Belgian’s influence (on the game). Fellaini was receiving the ball in dangerous positions – in between United’s midfield and defence, all night, and was bringing others into the game very effectively. At times Scholes and Cleverley would both swarm around Everton’s number 25 and yet he’d still come out with the ball and find a pass.
If Ferguson is going to continue with this formation, is a defensive minded midfielder essential? Other teams around Europe almost always include a defensive midfielder when deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation. Think Daniele De Rossi at Roma. Think Sami Khedira at Real Madrid.
“We’re lacking steel in midfield”, “we need to spend big money on a box-to-box midfielder.”
Following the opening game at Goodison Park, fans flooded the television phone-ins and fan forums, sharing their frustrations, pleading with Sir Alex to splash-out on a ‘midfield general’. Certain fans/pundits defended the club’s current midfield situation however, pointing to the imminent return of Fletcher as a possible solution.
Phil Jones, anyone?
The defender, come midfielder, come utility player has endured a successful first year as a red. The 20-year-old has yet to nail down a specific position however, since joining from Blackburn Rovers last year. Although still very young, Jones has a maturity to his game rarely seen in younger players. The Lancashire born star is clearly happy to play in whatever position the manager see’s fit, but must be wondering where he’ll end up featuring for United once he finally establishes himself as a first team regular. Naturally, if fit, Jones would have played alongside Vidic against Everton, releasing Carrick of his defensive duties (somewhat). But if we can think of the bigger picture: could playing in a defensive minded midfield role be a realistic option going forward, for Jones? Many flirted with idea over the course of last season – following the handful of games he played in midfield – and opinion is still divided over the issue.
Phil Jones Fact File
- Currently injured for 6-8 weeks
- Age – 20
- Place of birth – Preston
- Premier League Apps – 64
A defensive minded, ball winning type player alongside an excellent passer – take your pick from Scholes, Carrick or Cleverley – is a match made in heaven, surely? Jones’ performances in midfield last season led to many questioning his best position. Is it at the heart of defence, or in fact in midfield? If fit, could Jones have made a difference in the game against Everton? His physical presence would have certainly brought steel into the midfield.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, but arguably, some of Phil Jones’ best attributes coincide with exactly what was missing on Merseyside – somebody to break-up play and contend with Fellaini, aerially. Maybe it was just Everton’s day – they deserve credit for their performance. It’s possible that United won’t face a team as effective tactically again all season.
At home, domestically, United usually get away with any two of Cleverley, Carrick, Scholes or Anderson in centre midfield – as ball retention is key. In certain games away from home and certainly in Europe, things are slightly different. Although ball retention is still a huge factor, having someone to break-up play is equally important – especially when you consider how many of those ‘number ten’ type flair players there are plying their trade across Europe. If teams do not have effective game plans/personnel to restrict the likes of David Silva, Andrés Iniesta, Mesut Özil and even United’s very own, Shinji Kagawa, then expect these players to cause havoc.
Would continuing to play Jones in a midfield role – in certain away fixtures and in Europe – hinder his development as a centre half? At twenty years old, quite possibly no. He still has a lot to learn and is nowhere near the finished article, so being played in a variety of positions can only help his overall game. With many questioning his positional discipline too, playing in midfield could be the best short-term solution for both parties.
Ultimately though, will we see him establish himself at the heart of United’s defence? Most likely, yes. But for the next two years or so, there’s no reason why he can’t be the box-to-box midfielder Manchester United fans seem to so desperately crave.
One thing Phil Jones has got in abundance, is time. Playing for arguably the greatest club in the country and with five full England caps already under his belt, there’s no doubt he will go on to become a prominent figure, for both club and country.
A future leader, a future captain, a future star!