Is Manchester United's Phil Jones England's greatest defensive hope?

Is Manchester United’s Phil Jones England’s greatest defensive hope?

When we think of the archetypal English player, what qualities come to mind? Skill? Trickery? Vision? Get real. Whatever we might admit, the English game has always been built, first and foremost, on a grittier and dirtier conception of talent: we like effort; toughness; leadership. The reasons for this association are not always clear and almost certainly coincide with a vast network of social and cultural ideas about Englishness, from both within and without.[1]

At its simplest however, we can probably trace it to playing conditions—the conception of a ‘dirtier’ brand of football seems apt given that our game matured in the rain and the mud rather than the sun and sand. This has meant that, even in an age where the English Premier League features some of the most technically gifted players in the world, a full-blooded tackle from a defensive midfielder will still win the largest roar from the stands.
James Milner tackles Victor Wanyama

This is a pretty common observation, of course, and maybe the conceit of the last paragraph was a little cheap. Nonetheless, there is worth in bearing the old stereotype of the hardworking, no-nonsense player in mind when assessing the characteristics through which English football has grown, and by which it feels most comfortable defining itself.[2]

Admittedly this has been a curse as much as a blessing, and from Glenn Hoddle to Paul Scholes we can trace a long line of incredibly gifted players who have been under- or misused in the international setup due to their comparatively unimpressive defensive capabilities. Even so, the lack of truly great creative players in England’s international history has always been counterbalanced by a tradition of defensive talent, coming in its most iconic form with the great English centre-back.

Harking back to Moore and Charlton in the 1966 side, England has been spoiled in the last thirty years by the likes of Terry Butcher, Tony Adams, Jamie Carragher, Sol Campbell, John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, all lynchpins for their respective clubs and all with a claim to genuine world-class status.[3] Aside from such obvious choices, we could also point to secondary choices of notable talent like Martin Keown, Des Walker and Gareth Southgate; players like Steve Bruce and Gary Mabbutt whose legendary club status never translated to the caps they deserved; and great players like Ledley King and Jonathan Woodgate whose injuries scuppered any chance of a long England career. Whatever one’s club loyalty or footballing sensibility, there is no doubting it—England has always been a footballing country built on great centre-backs.

England: Rio Ferdinand and John Terry

So the question now presents itself: why do we, in 2017, suddenly have such a dearth of quality centre-backs?

As pundits were quick to point out before the 2016 Euros, when Roy Hodgson only named three recognized centre-backs in the squad (four if we include Centre Back-turned-midfielder Eric Dier), English football’s embarrassment of riches in the middle of defence has abruptly dried up. The starting pair in France, Gary Cahill and John Stones, are indeed a far cry from the talent listed in the previous paragraph; Cahill, though an able servant, has never been able to match the quality of his Chelsea partner Terry, and Stones, though a player of great promise, is still far from the finished product.[4]

Chris Smalling meanwhile, who also came into the starting eleven in France, also failed to make the position his own, a disappointment when considering his fine season for Manchester United. Though a player with both the physical and technical attributes to be a great player, Smalling too often makes mistakes in important international matches, and seems to lack the assertive leadership qualities demanded of a starting centre-back—it is hard to imagine him owning the England armband in the same way as Tony Adams or Terry.

Chris Smalling England

If we scan the rest of England, the situation often looks just as bleak. Excepting the central defenders who went to France, only Ryan Shawcross and Eric Dier are currently starting for a team that finished in the top half of the Premier League last season. Shawcross can count himself unlucky not to have been involved more in the England setup over the last five years, but, at the age of 29, seems too old to integrate himself into the international team after so few caps. Eric Dier, on the other hand, is another player with a lot of maturation left to do, and looks more comfortable playing in defensive midfield or a defensive trio, where two other central defenders ease the pressure of mistakes.

Although one could point to English defenders playing for clubs nearer the bottom of the table, such as Michael Keane and Ben Mee at Burnley or Steve Cook at Bournemouth, such choices do not seem well-equipped to step up to the level required of a full international, at least not right away. England’s need, meanwhile, is fairly urgent, particularly as Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka are past 30 and will soon leave our roster even more depleted.

England may, however, already have a ready-made replacement for these ageing defenders: step forward Philip Anthony Jones.

Phil Jones in action for England

Once hailed as a future England captain, Phil Jones’ last few years of injuries have upset his development at Manchester United and cooled the fervour that was he once inspired among pundits. Yet is easy to forget that he is only 24 years of age, and still already has 20 caps of international experience; over 150 Premier League games (and one title) under his belt; and has started 14 of the last 15 matches for one of the biggest clubs in world football. At a time when there are simply not enough English defenders at top clubs, it is refreshing to see Jose Mourinho giving Jones a chance at United, and though he has made a few mistakes this season, there are signs of the player that Sir Alex Ferguson once rated so highly.[5]

His tackling success rate of 62% is superior to the likes of Toby Alderweireld, Virgil Van Dijk, Ashley Williams and David Luiz; whilst his superb 73% success rate in aerial duels is better than every centre-back at Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool. The leadership qualities which saw him captain the England U21 side will also stand him in good stead alongside other candidates like Stones and Smalling; in many ways his physical and rugged game is a throwback to the great English centre-backs of years past, and his deceptively impressive technical skills have been honed by several midfield appearances under Ferguson.

All of this makes the 2016-17 season a key one for Phil Jones. If he can avoid injury and stay in Mourinho’s plans, he will be the best candidate to make the English number 5 his own. Otherwise, England’s iconic centre-back position, that has for so long been the country’s major strength, really will be in crisis.

@thefballfaculty

[1] Some of which may involve us playing up to stereotypes and others which might interact with some tough, cocksure and possibly racist neo-Imperialist vibes

[2] Picture a bleeding Terry Butcher, or Bobby Moore’s tackle on Pele.

[3] John Terry, for instance, appeared in the Uefa Team of the Year four times in the mid-2000s—the same amount as Alessandro Nesta.

[4] As his recent mistakes for City have made all too clear.

[5] Ferguson not only paid 17 million for him as a teenager, but predicted after the 2012-13 title that Jones could become United’s ‘greatest ever player’.