An undisputed master of all facets of football management at the highest level, Sir Alex Ferguson is a man with nothing left to prove. Indeed, one of the enduring features of his distinguished tenure at Manchester United has been his ability to replenish and rejuvenate his squad on an almost annual basis, his changes and acquisitions leading to further success with unerring regularity.
Ferguson’s recruitment strategy this summer was clearly geared towards signing relatively young players with a view to the future; Ashley Young, David de Gea and Phil Jones all arriving at Old Trafford for a combined total of around £44m. While all three are extremely talented individuals, the speed at which this youthful, new-look United has settled and begun to play scintillating football must have surprised even the most enthusiastic and optimistic of supporters.
Manchester United defender Phil Jones (right) produced an eye-catching performance against Bolton. (Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Phil Jones may have been perhaps the least heralded of the three summer buys, but the former Blackburn Rovers defender has taken to life in a red shirt with consummate ease. It would be myopic to suggest that Manchester United has been the making of Jones – he was consistently impressive during his time in the first team at Ewood Park, but his early displays for the Red Devils have highlighted his great maturity through his ability to deal with the pressure of playing for one of the world’s most high-profile clubs.
An assured, unflappable defender, Jones has brought his confidence and versatility to a wider audience since arriving at Old Trafford. Indeed, Saturday’s trip to Bolton Wanderers’ Reebok Stadium – a resounding 5-0 victory for United – saw Jones put in his best performance since making the short move from Lancashire to Greater Manchester.
Thrust into action at right-back with Chris Smalling being rested following the rigours of international duty, Jones was matched up against the tricky Martin Petrov and handled the often incisive winger with great confidence. While Jones’ defensive play wasn’t flawless (Petrov was able to attempt seventeen crosses over the course of the afternoon), the Bulgarian was restricted to just one successful dribble and not a single shot on target as the young full-back continually prevented his experienced opponent from cutting inside.
As assured as the majority of his defensive play was, it was in going forward that Jones most spectacularly caught the eye. Having taken the lead through Javier Hernandez after just five minutes, United extended their lead a quarter of an hour later as Jones got himself into the final third to deliver a pinpoint cross which was duly converted by Wayne Rooney. Despite not being a natural right-back, the England U21 international’s intelligent offensive movement was a clear indication of his growing versatility.
Better was to come from Jones in the build-up to United’s third as he embarked on a jinking run through the heart of the Bolton defence, beating three opponents as he carved through open spaces with a commanding dexterity on the ball. His eventual shot was blocked, falling to Rooney who turned it in and immediately ran to Jones by way of congratulation. For such a young and inexperienced defender it was a remarkably cultured performance in a position which is known not to be his favourite. Jones’ defensive abilities have been patently clear since his Blackburn days, but Saturday’s game underlined just how potent a threat he can be going forward when required.
When he was initially signed from Blackburn there were some doubts expressed as to whether or not Jones was ready to make the step up to play for Manchester United. It was thought that the young centre-back was perhaps too raw to slot straight into Ferguson’s team, too unsubtle to make an immediate impact at such a prestigious club. However, Jones has shown that he is a quick learner and, what is more, a far more cultured defender than many have given him credit for in the past.
Signed for the future and yet already producing performances of great class, Jones is becoming an integral part of a team which has begun the season in imperious form and looks set to mount yet another major push for the Premier League title this season. On a steep upward curve of development and surely yet to reach his peak, the boy from Preston looks set to become a fixture in a Manchester United – and very probably an England – shirt in the years to come. For Phil Jones, this is just the beginning.