Phil Jones becoming a key part of Manchester United’s armoury
José Mourinho says the 25-year-old is “everything I like in a central defender”
Manchester United’s Phil Jones tackles West Ham United’s Andre Ayew during their Premier League clash at Old Trafford. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Reuters
Phil Jones’s career has contained more than its fair share of caveats so it was reasonable enough for José Mourinho, invited to dwell on the significance of his centre-back to a third consecutive clean sheet, to add another. A defensive Leicester side had not set the most rigorous of examinations but the more relevant note of caution was a familiar one.
“If we manage to have him safe from injuries, I think he’s potentially everything I like in a central defender,” Mourinho said after watching Jones impress alongside Eric Bailly and ensure glimpses of open grass for Jamie Vardy were kept to the barest minimum in a 2-0 win. The tools that marked him out as a star in his Blackburn years had all been on show: the channelled aggression, the composure, even a first-half surge upfield in support of the attack that provided a brief reminder of the havoc his power can wreak at the right moments.
That “potentially” has hung over Jones for too long and the reason, a litany of injuries that has restricted him to 170 appearances for Manchester United in six years, is no mystery. He finished last season in decent shape but it was little surprise when Mourinho signed a competitor for his position, Victor Lindelof, during the summer. Toe and knee problems sidelined him from more than a third of Manchester United’s games in 2016-17; it is not a record to hang your hat on and it felt imperative that Jones hit the ground running this season.
He has done exactly that, perhaps helped by the fact that Lindelof is receiving a variant of the settling-in treatment Mourinho gave Henrikh Mkhitaryan a year ago. Lindelof was not among the substitutes at Old Trafford on Saturday and will probably have to wait until the Champions League match against Basel on September 12th, for which Jones and Bailly are both suspended, for his first involvement since the Uefa Super Cup defeat to Real Madrid.
Jones needs to make this time count and it was worth paying heed to Mourinho when he said the 25-year-old was “still young, still at a learning age”. He sometimes seems to have been around for longer, his proactive style perhaps lending him an air of authority beyond his years, but it is far from outlandish to suggest his summer lies ahead of him. The role of senior partner to Bailly, who has also begun well even if the occasional piece of risk-taking causes flutters, appears to suit him and the signs are of a dynamic combination that could take some wrenching apart.
Yet the niggling worry remains and Mourinho does not hide it. “For years and years and years he was injury prone and he has a problem now,” he said. “He is complaining about an ankle problem, so he’s the kind of player we need to always have in our hands with a lot of care from the medical department, from the fitness coach, from my assistants in the gym, working always on prevention and recovery.”
In that context an international break brings with it a predictable sense of foreboding, particularly as Jones has surely played his way into contention for a starting role in England’s World Cup qualifiers against Malta and Slovakia. He will have new competition from the Leicester defender Harry Maguire, who showed his own virtues with an accomplished shackling of Romelu Lukaku on Saturday, but his form will certainly have piqued the interest of Gareth Southgate and there may have been an extra layer to Mourinho’s words of concern about his condition.
United’s balance, from defence to attack, is approaching the kind of level Mourinho would like and it is far from ideal that their rhythm is disrupted now. From hereon it is a juggling act between cups, national team games and shuffled-around weekend fixtures; it is another reason to qualify too much excitement about Jones’s revival and, more broadly, about the form his side have discovered.
“If I have one week to prepare for a match my team is always very good,” Mourinho said pointedly, making slightly obscure use of his spell at União de Leiria – which was unencumbered by European commitments – as an example. Until their load lessens, he said, their work will have to rely primarily on muscle memory from pre-season. It will take durability but if Jones can surprise his manager by lasting the course it could go some way towards rendering the idea of mere potential, for both player and team, a thing of the past.