There is a certain elixir in youth. The vibrancy and the genuine excitement delivered by younger stars introduced to Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad this campaign has transformed the Old Trafford atmosphere – quite literally, as our American brothers sometimes say. Despite United’s outstanding record at Old Trafford last season, where 19 Premier League games brought 18 victories, the inescapable feeling that Ferguson’s 2010 vintage was not quite up to scratch pervaded the Reds’ campaign.
It was out with the old as Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Owen Hargreaves and a plethora of retirees made way for an influx of the new this summe. The transformation has brought not only a new style to United’s play but fresh hope too. In all of that one man stands out, one man stamped with the mark of genuine, undeniable quality. There is a feeling deep inside that, in Phil Jones, we are witnessing the emergence of a genuine world talent
Jones’ powerful running from central defence, full-back or – frankly – wherever he feels like, is compelling. As is the player’s passing, positioning and, lest we forget, defending. Jones’ running from right-back at the Reebok Stadium earlier this month seemed as effortless as it was natural. The defender’s composure in central defence at the Britannia, even under the incessant aerial onslaught, confirmed the feeling that the player is ready for the big time. Right now.
That 19-year-old’s powerful build has drawn lazy comparisons with Nemanja Vidic and, God forbid, John Terry. Let’s have none of that. Jones is a real player. More Rio Ferdinand than Vidic, yet with the captain’s temperament and a physique to surpass the former Leeds United player in every department.
Such is Jones’ quality that Sir Bobby Charlton and Pat Crerand were drawn into making the almost inevitable comparisons with Duncan Edwards last month. That comparison should wait, at least until Jones approaches the 171 game marker the late, great, Edwards reached for United.
The more relevant test is whether Jones compares with the best available in the country today. Would Sir Alex swap his 19-year-old phenomenon for Terry, Phil Jaglielka, Jolean Lescot, or Gary Cahill? Not a prayer. £16.5 million was supposed to include an ‘English premium’, but when it comes to questions of value for money spent, the player would be cheap at twice the price.
Jones’ quality on the ball has also brought the inevitable call for the player to be deployed in midfield. There is little doubt that the player’s touch and passing would allow Jones to compete in the heart of Ferguson’s side. There is something in the argument that Jones could play almost anywhere and hold his own. With Ferguson’s squad still lacking a genuine, tough-tackling, ball-winner in the Roy Keane mould, the cry for Jones to fill that void is all the more inevitable.
Yet, it is also a demand that smacks of that old Anglo-Saxon suspicion of the ball-playing defender. Indeed, Ferdinand’s emergence at West Ham United in the late 1990s brought the same call. The question, surely, is why Jones shouldn’t be retained in defence, where he will become a world star, rather than be pushed into midfield, where he will be one among many. At Barcelona, for example, where possession of the ball is king, midfielders become defenders and not the other way round.
The debate may be moot. Given the surging runs from defence at the Britannia Jones helpfully fulfilled that old cliché: two players in one. At times that buccaneering style, the willingness to break out of defence and create a fifth man in midfield so clear against Stoke, may open United to the threat of counter-attack. Jones will learn, if he doesn’t already know, when to go and when to stay.
Ferdinand used to have that too, but somewhere along the line the fear took hold and the Londoner’s forays forward became more restricted. A rarity even. Somehow Jones’ fearlessness, bravery, and savvy way beyond his years seems likely to prevent a repeat.
No wonder United tied up Jones’ signature months ahead of his official July transfer from Ewood Park, at least according to weekend reports. While United fought hard for Smalling’s signature, fending off Arsenal’s admiring attention among others, Ferguson had no intention of allowing even a debate to unfold where Jones was concerned. Fortunately for United, the admiration was always mutual.
There is still something to work on with the youngster, despite the sense that the player has been two decades in the United side, rather than two months. The former Blackburn Rovers player was caught on the wrong side of the man he was marking as Peter Crouch headed home at the Britannia, for example. That we are resorting to the minutiae of Jones’ game to draw out criticism says much for the man already.
Meet Phil Jones. World star in the making and a joy to behold.