The case for Phil Jones’ Euro 2016 involvement, the forgotten man at Manchester United
It’s genuinely difficult to make a case for Phil Jones to be in an England squad when he’s only played 10 games for Manchester United this season. But heck, if Jack Wilshere got in, why can’t Jones?
England find themselves with arguably their most tactically innovative midfield in a generation. Roy Hodgson’s 4-1-4-1 (or 4-3-3, whichever you prefer), has been constructed by accommodating Wayne Rooney, Dele Alli and Eric Dier all in the same triangle, with Dier sitting as a designated holder with Rooney and Alli breaking forward. Considering that Rooney has found fertile soil in his renaissance in midfield, and Alli might well be England’s best talent since Paul Gascoigne, this formation is refreshingly effective, a tactical progression that both Sven and Fabio failed to embrace with the golden generation during the noughties.
But the pressure that this setup places on Dier is concerning. He’s evolved into a hungry, tactically aware, and positionally sound no.6 who can shield England’s defence well. And considering that defence is arguably the side’s achilles, it may not be unreasonable to suggest that he truly is England’s most tactically important player. Lose Dier, lose the team’s structure, lose Rooney and Alli’s license to roam, lose the solidarity that has seen England concede just three shots on target so far this tournament.
Back to Jones. He’s maligned, he’s out of form, and his career may well have stagnated badly, but like him or not, he remains England’s most similar player to Dier. A converted full/centre back who can play in the hole, with a track record of performing in big games, he was once Alex Ferguson’s ace card against Gareth Bale at White Hart Lane and Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabeu, where he nullified both of them in important games. He embodies that physical prowess that you demand from players in defensive situations and has the mental craft to perform on the biggest of stages.
Hodgson has entrusted the old guard by selecting Jack Wilshere to play in a deep role, but this is not Wilshere’s best position, nor is he in a great physical condition and in form. Arsene Wenger still sees him as an advancing no.10 to limit his defensive contributions at Arsenal, and he remains brittle. While you could probably make a valiant case for the inclusion of Danny Drinkwater in and amongst this, it’s hard not to think that if Eric Dier gets injured, England will be vulnerable.
Holding midfielders traditionally run further than any other in games, and Dier will need rest and rotation at some point. Fielding his replica, Phil Jones, would ensure England’s cohesion remains in tact and their familiarity to Hodgson’s formation maintained. England’s games against inferior opposition in the group stage may be able to mask Wilshere’s shortcomings, but in the knockout rounds, opposition will be more testing.
This is a player, after all, who Ferguson once labelled as having the potential to be United’s ‘best ever player’. He may not be perfect, but Nicky Butt (2002) and Owen Hargreaves (2006), archetypal holders, have been England’s surprise best players at tournaments in the past. Including Jones, a more honest portrayal of that type of player than James Milner and Jordan Henderson, would safeguard the side better.