When the team sheet was announced at 7pm on Monday night before the Manchester derby, arguably the biggest surprise was that Phil Jones was selected to partner Rio Ferdinand at centre-back. Despite this being a forced move due to injury, there was still great intrigue regarding the inclusion of Jones in his favoured position and whether him and Rio would be able to perform effectively as a pair that hadn’t played together since the defeat away to Newcastle early last January.
In a sense, Phil Jones has suffered as a result of his versatility and Monday night marked only his third appearance in his favoured position this campaign. Due to this, he would perhaps have been excused for being uncomfortable in a positional sense but this wasn’t the case. Jones unquestionably, for United anyway, put in the best performance on the pitch.
His aerial presence was there for all to see and his strength in the tackle was frightening, and there was a real consistency in the tightness of his marking against Tevez and Nasri. He was vocal beyond his age and the only real criticism of his performance was that he could have been quicker to react to Aguero’s turn of pace when he burst through on goal for the match-winner.
Nevertheless, this mustn’t tarnish such a brilliant performance – one which Sir Alex Ferguson foresaw.
“I have no issues about that (Jones starting in central defence), he’s an outstanding footballer,” he said before kick off.
What his performance last night has achieved is that it has created a real selection dilemma for Sir Alex at the heart of United’s defence. The key to keeping clean sheets is consistency in personnel selection. A familiar back five is necessary in gaining stability as United have found out since the turn of the year with the return of Vidic alongside Ferdinand.
Logic would suggest that the right option to make would be to stick with this partnership from the Stoke game and beyond, with Nemanja back in training and expected fit, but why should Jones miss out after such a solid performance? Also why should Evans miss out when he has been undoubtedly United’s most consistent performer over the course of the season?
United now have four top class central defenders in contention for the starting spot and that is without even mentioning Smalling. The truth is that they all offer something completely different on the football pitch, and the rest of the team appears to be impacted by who is selected.
Jonny Evans is quite comfortably the most natural ball-playing centre half at the club. He is the most composed on the ball and the tempo is played at a much quicker pace when he is playing with games – the 4-3 Newcastle home win and the 3-2 Chelsea away at Stamford Bridge spring to mind. However, with this approach comes vulnerability on the counter-attack and a greater likelihood to concede which is reflective in the early season score-lines of which Evans was an ever-present.
The return to fitness of the Captain Nemanja Vidic since January has dramatically decreased United’s goals-against tally and since his return in December, we have only conceded five goals in the Premier league. However this does come with a cost.
A partnership of Vidic and Ferdinand lacks real attacking urgency and the pace of the game is slower. There is more of a reluctance to bring the ball forward to Carrick quickly and they seem to play much deeper as a partnership than say Evans and Smalling do as they lack the pace to deal with potential counter attacks.
With Jones now genuinely thrown into the mix for a potential starting spot, there is further decision-making to be made. Should United look to regain some attacking impetus and directness that we shown earlier in the season, or should we remain impeccably clean-sheet focused as we have been lately (City result aside).
My opinion is that United’s strongest defensive partnership is Vidic and Evans. This, to me, offers the best balance between youth and experience and the best of both approaches – the no-nonsense values that Vidic possesses and the desire to play football and start attacks that Evans has.
For now, despite Monday’s performance, I still think we should be patient with Jones. The club would benefit from him carrying on to fill in wherever necessary and there is no doubt that eventually he will nail down that centre-back position in Vidic’s place – and no doubt inherit the captaincy too