Saturday, November 16, 2013
Has Phil Jones solved Manchester United's midfield puzzle?
Manchester United's 21-year-old defender, Phil Jones, put in an admirable and highly praiseworthy performance in the holding midfielder position alongside Michael Carrick in their 1-0 win over Arsenal on November 10. Given United's frailties in the middle of the pitch, Jones's performance has provided fans with some hope that the midfield puzzle is nearly solved. However, is it?
To say that Phil Jones was a beast is perhaps an overused cliché. But no other word could possibly do justice to his performance for Manchester United at Old Trafford against the top-placed Gunners.
Even though they were playing at home, United were well the underdogs coming into the fixture, with Arsenal dropping just five points in their opening 10 games and sitting pretty at the top of the table with a yawning eight-point gap between their opponents, who were languishing in eighth spot.
The battle, they said, would be won in the midfield. With United still not having found their right combination and approach, following a change in the manager's chair after their title-winning histrionics last season, Arsenal were favourites coming to a ground where they hadn't won since 2006.
Arsenal's midfield was boosted by the acquisition of Mesut Ozil over the summer, adding him to a potent formation including Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere and Mathieu Flamini. The Gunners were expected to boss the inconsistent and unsettled United midfield.
David Moyes decided to go in with his usual 4-2-3-1 formation with Jones partnering Michael Carrick ahead of the defenders. Jones was played out of his preferred position of centre-back, but lost no time in settling in to his team's requirement.
Like a ravaging bull, Jones barged into a stunned Arsenal and snatched the ball away at will. His interception, tackling and runs from box to box were exemplary and allowed United to hold the strings for majority of the match.
In the second half, when captain Nemanja Vidic left the field with an apparent concussion, Jones was shifted to centre-back, while Tom Cleverley took up the Englishman's position next to Carrick.
The difference was there to see as Arsenal began to snare more of the possession and threatened to equalise as the match drew to a close. But United managed to hold on to a priceless 1-0 scoreline and three points, which reduced the gap between them and their rivals to five points and pushed them up to fifth in the table.
Jones missed out on the Man of the Match award, which went to Wayne Rooney who provided an assist to Robin van Persie's goal and was his usual industrious self. But that didn't stop Jones from earning a lot praise from the local press for his gallantry.
It also raised the question whether, in Jones and Carrick, United had found their right defensive midfield combination. The duo complement each other in their styles—while Jones is fast, aggressive, can tackle and win the ball, Carrick is vision, touch and pass. To have that kind of a recipe to support the attacking trio in the midfield ahead of them, Moyes seems to have struck gold.
However, what United still lack is that touch of creativity—something they haven't possessed since they sold Ronaldo to Real Madrid a few seasons ago. It is still evident that United lack that penetration into the opposition's box, and that is not something that their five-strong midfield is able to provide.
Also, Jones himself prefers to play in the centre-back position, as he confirmed after the match to Sky Sports: "I'm happy with my own form. I'm pleased to be getting a bit of a run at centre-half.
"It's always nice to play in the position you feel most comfortable in. I played in midfield against Norwich in the Capital One Cup, but mostly it has been centre-back and that's where I want to be.
"When I came, it was always the plan to establish myself as a centre-back and I hope to do it this season. If the manager keeps faith in me, I'll make sure I can cement a spot there and get a good run there."
If United are to push for the title, they must look to find or infuse that creativity in the middle. Jones may have done well in this game, but do they have a fallback in case he is injured? Marouane Fellaini is still adapting to the Manchester United way of life, Cleverley has not shown the same promise as he did a couple of seasons ago, and Anderson remains average and sporadic.
United need to provide Rooney an assistant in his push towards the opposition box. Jones is good, but at the end of the day he is a defender at heart. What United need is an attacking playmaker, and a quality one at that.
Will Moyes find one in the January transfer window? If he wants to get his United career off to a good start, he would hope he does.