Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was reflecting upon his next signing and discussing the excellent age profile of his centre-back options.
“Raphael is into his prime as a centre-back. He’s the same age as Harry, a year older than Eric and Victor,” the Manchester United manager said. Raphael Varane and Harry Maguire are both 28, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof each 27.
One name went unmentioned, of a United central defender who also ought to be at his prime. Phil Jones is still just 29. His career has had a rather different course to Maguire’s: perhaps it is slow-burner against burnt out.
At 21, the current United captain was still in League One. Jones was already an England international, a big-money Manchester United signing and about to win the title. He had long been compared to John Terry. Astonishingly, Sir Alex Ferguson was about to bracket him with Duncan Edwards. “He could be our greatest ever player,” said United’s greatest ever manager.
Eight years on, Jones is at best sixth-choice centre-back. He scored on his last appearance, but it was against Tranmere in January 2020. He was omitted from United’s 25-man Premier League squad for the first half of last season – admittedly partly because of knee surgery – and the same fate may await again.
Jones went from being punchline to forgotten man. His lucklessness with injuries – 24 in his United career, according to Transfermarkt – means it is hardly all his fault. It was Louis van Gaal’s utterly bizarre decision to ask Jones to take corners, not his own. An occasional haplessness, from the diving header on the ground against Arsenal, or the comical pictures of him gurning, cemented an image that felt unfair and a dramatic shift in perception.
The young Jones seemed a prodigy; he was versatile enough to excel in midfield against Real Madrid. He appeared to have the talent and big-match temperament to flourish in three positions, including right-back, and looked likely to be United’s long-term central defender.
Instead, and much as Solskjaer praised others, a partnership now seems set in stone: Maguire and Varane, the world’s most expensive centre-back and the World Cup winner. They have the makings of much United’s best centre-back duo since Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. There has been a long wait for a combination of such stature.
The defining figures of the interregnum between Ferdinand and Vidic then and Maguire and Varane now were Chris Smalling and Jones; not necessarily in a good way, either. Forever twinned in the imaginations, they were examples of Ferguson’s succession planning, thinking of a future that never arrived. They brought longevity – Smalling had nine seasons at Old Trafford before joining Roma, initially on loan, while Jones has now completed a decade – but neither became the colossus or the cornerstone at the back. Ferguson felt he was leaving a legacy; one reason for United’s subsequent decline was that the few of the younger players he bequeathed David Moyes realised their potential at Old Trafford. Jones and Smalling belonged to the genre of those who stayed and stayed. Others went, often for cut-price fees.
Sir Alex Ferguson once said that Phil Jones could be Manchester United's best EVER player! 😲 pic.twitter.com/z8jveJgoTdJanuary 10, 2020
United have had reasons to regret Van Gaal’s decision to sell Jonny Evans in 2015; the third supposed successor to Ferdinand and Vidic has fared better in the subsequent six seasons than either of the two men he kept. Meanwhile, Jones and Smalling were an imperfect partnership, better apart than together. Arguably Smalling’s finest season came in 2015/16 when he was allied with Daley Blind, not Jones; his initial positive impression came alongside a dominant Vidic. Neither got to pair Varane or Maguire at his peak. Indeed, Solskjaer’s signings were designed as an upgrade to each.
The Jones-Smalling era was defined by the quest for something better. Centre-backs were bought in 2014, 2016, 2017, 2019 and now 2021; Jose Mourinho loudly lamented a failure to buy them in 2018. They felt ever more of stopgaps until something superior came along.
Meanwhile, Jones became trapped in a cycle of misfortune that renders it harder to put any faith in him. Solskjaer’s response to having injury-prone centre-backs, in Jones and Bailly, was to buy Maguire, who is hardly ever sidelined and invariably selected. United’s ability to give their players never-ending lucrative contracts means Jones and David de Gea are now the longest-serving first-team players - if, indeed, that description can still be applied to the defender – and perhaps stuck there, unaffordable to anyone else.
His future feels on the margins. Jones, the player who peaked early, seems supplanted by centre-backs who are in effect contemporaries but whose careers have followed very different trajectories. It is Lindelof rather than him who will be displaced by Varane but it was Jones who Ferguson thought would be the rock of the United team by now.
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