Phil Jones' value goes beyond numbers

Posted by Musa Okwonga

Phil Jones, wow. Few other footballers have so well demonstrated the limits of mere statistics. When Manchester United defeated Arsenal by a single goal to nil, there was no one figure that pointed to Jones' remarkable influence on the outcome. Sure, there was an interception or two here, a block or three there, even a somewhat puzzling yellow card. But, as yet, the humble number-crunchers of Opta have not come up with an accurate measure for tone-setting, and so Jones' greatest talent must so far go unrecorded.

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He's Phil Jones: He Sets Tones: not quite as catchy as "Paul Scholes, he scores goals", but every bit as accurate. From the beginning against Arsenal, Jones showed the type of tenacity and aggression that have so usefully disrupted the Londoners' passing rhythm over the years. When he was moved into the centre of defence after half time, following a horrible injury sustained by Nemanja Vidic, Arsenal suddenly became bolder in their approach, like woodland creatures coming out to play after the grizzly bear has wandered safely past.

Jones has considerable presence, which is perhaps surprising since, at first glance, he doesn't look all that imposing. Sure, he's tall, but there's not an obvious menace about him. He has the air, instead, of an obedient yet somewhat distracted schoolchild. You can imagine him in short sleeves, a slightly-loosed tie and a baseball cap with its peak tilted to one side. He seems blissfully devoid of guile or malice, and instead the type of person who is endlessly useful about the place. Close your eyes and you can almost see him helping out the club's groundstaff as they mark out the touchlines and hammer the nets into the turf.

Phil Jones: the handyman of Old Trafford. Many clubs have had caretaker managers, but few have had a caretaker midfielder: a man brought in as a stopgap whilst the search continues for a long-term replacement. However Jones, in the word so hated by Rafa Benitez when he was at Chelsea, is one hell of an interim. His performance against Arsenal is precisely the type of game that Marouane Fellaini, all 27 million pounds of him, will hopefully one day produce. As the Belgium international looked on, Jones delivered a 45-minute clinic in the defensive midfield arts, before dropping back alongside Jonny Evans for the rest of the match. You get the impression that, if needed, he would play as a target man without complaint. In this vein, he's similar to Phil Neville and John O'Shea, the other leading utility men of the modern Manchester United era.

Unlike Neville and O'Shea, though, Jones already has a talismanic quality about him: with increasing frequency, it is a relief for Manchester United fans to see him on the team-sheet. This is not to overlook his areas for improvement -- his technique and passing range put him a rung or two below the elite in defensive midfield -- but it is significant that, though still only 21 years of age, he is tasked and trusted with some of the game's biggest assignments. Last night, he added Mesut Ozil to the list of players whose impact he has helped to minimise, along with Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Andres Iniesta. Of course, he can't claim sole responsibility for their discomfort against his teams, but it's pretty revealing that each of these attackers seems to have had an off-night when lined up against him.

As said at the start, it's all about tone-setting; and, among the current ranks of young Manchester United outfield players, there are a cluster of characters who can claim such a talent. Jones is one of them, alongside Adnan Januzaj and Rafael: on Sunday night against Arsenal, he provided fresh evidence that his is a backbone on which David Moyes can rest considerable pressure. Jones was acquired for a sum believed to be in the region of 17 million pounds, a sum which intrigued many at the time. However, with each match that he subdues vastly more expensive attackers, that fee -- to paraphrase the late, great Aaliyah -- "ain't nothin' but a number".


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