Manchester United’s strong start to the season has been well documented. Ten goals in three games, nine points and top of the Premier League table. But perhaps the most impressive part is three straight clean sheets – and the side have never really looked like conceding. No-one has played a bigger role in this than Phil Jones.
Manager Jose Mourinho has had the luxury of naming an unchanged back four in each fixture thus far. Antonio Valencia on the right, Daley Blind on the left and the authoritative Eric Bailly alongside Jones in the middle (with David de Gea behind). While continuity is undeniably conducive to good performances at the back, so is a calm head and strong grasp of nuts-and-bolts defending. Crucially, this is what the Englishman possesses.
Jones will smash it into row Z when needed. He will time tackles to perfection – while occasionally resembling a flailing starfish – and take the ball off an opponent thanks to his natural footballing brain and ability to read situations before they happen. He will drop a shoulder and beat a man to buy himself some time. He is a strong header of the ball, times aerial challenges well and is not fazed by opponents bigger or quicker than him: and there are not many.
When you consider that in games against West Ham, Swansea City and Leicester City, Jones has faced the speed, strength or height of Javier Hernandez, Marko Arnautovic, Tammy Abraham and Jamie Vardy, his tasks have been varied and many. Sure, none of these forwards possess the dexterity of a Lionel Messi or the predatory instinct of a Sergio Aguero, but as a defender, you can only keep out what is put in front of you.
No wonder Mourinho is delighted. He said recently that Jones has “potentially everything I like in a central defender” and praised his partnership with the almost-as-impressive Ivorian Bailly. It speaks volumes of the 25-year-old that he has started the season as first choice over Chris Smalling, who Mourinho opted to start with in the Europa League final last May, and new £31m signing Victor Lindelof. It probably also helps that Jones completed a full pre-season without injury or incident and was ready to go from the off in August.
So maybe Sir Alex Ferguson was not going completely senile when he claimed that Jones could become the club’s best ever player, and nor was Sir Bobby Charlton, who likened him to Duncan Edwards not long after his move from Blackburn Rovers in 2011.
Phil Jones is still only 25. I sense Mourinho is going to help him realise the potential he's had since Blackburn days. Top defender
— Matt Law (@Matt_Law_DT) August 26, 2017
To state the obvious, injuries have well and truly got in the way of Jones fulfilling such a prophecy. A string of issues have restricted the defender to only 113 league starts in six years at United, to go with just 21 caps to his name for England prior to their World Cup qualifiers this week. Another good showing (and clean sheet) alongside Gary Cahill in the Three Lions shirt against Malta on Friday night was very welcome and turned a few more heads. Gareth Southgate was similarly impressed.
Southgate on #MUFC's Phil Jones: "There's no question Phil is in the team at the moment because he has been the best English defender"
— Simon Peach (@SimonPeach) September 3, 2017
Then again, should we really be that surprised by Jones’s form at the start of this campaign? Last season, from November until February, he also played well and formed an excellent, if surprising, partnership with Marcos Rojo. The pair formed the backbone and bedrock of United’s impressive run during this period and conceded only 12 goals in 20 matches. Both were considered among the first names on the team-sheet, and both were then considered big losses once they succumbed to long-term injuries thereafter.
But unlike his predecessor Louis van Gaal, Mourinho is clearly a fan and importantly, a shrewd man-manager. Jones has this on his side as he attempts to negotiate what will be a trying season mentally and physically. With Champions League football to come as the ultimate test of a centre-back’s outright defensive qualities, and the opportunity to nail down a spot in the national team, it feels like 2017/2018 is make or break.
As ever with Jones, there is still a small injury caveat. Mourinho also revealed in a post-Leicester City press conference that his man is struggling with a slight ankle problem and playing through some pain. Where have we heard this before?
Yet keep the faith. For if this man gets it together, he may be able to drop the comical moniker once and for all. There is a quality defender behind the many faces of Phil Jones, and whether that is in club red or international white, let us hope he wears the mask of a champion – and not an in-patient – come next summer.