Manchester United's Phil Jones will not face Wolves on Sunday afternoon, suggesting his United career is at an end.
First, one thing should be said about Jones. Few people manage to stay in any job for a decade, and to do so without ever attracting serious criticism of their personality, nor having their professionalism questioned, is an achievement in itself. There are countless people in everyday life and also in football who simply do the least that is asked of them, and leave things at that. That is not necessarily the morally wrong choice to make, but to work hard is also an admirable quality.
Jones has done that, at least. There is no point questioning the effort he puts in on the pitch. Everyone will have their favourite Jones gurn, the desperate lunge to a ball that has ricocheted off his shoulder, a ludicrous face-first collapse to take the ball out of the way of an incoming opponent, a simple face-melt that is happening simply because Jones wants it to happen. They are probably worth a blog of their own, especially given there is relatively little at stake this weekend, with most meaningful positions settled.
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The problem for Jones is not his personality. The problem with Jones is that he is still at Old Trafford. He is on wages of around £100,000 a week, at least, and he last played in January 2020. Only once in his 10 seasons has he played more than 40 games for his club. Only twice has he played more than 30 times. The last two years he has managed eight, and over the course of his tenure at the club he has offered increasingly little. 29 now, he should be providing leadership at the back, in his peak, a slimmed-down Gary Pallister. Instead he offers about as much as Pallister would now.
When Jones came to United, it looked like it wouldn’t have to be this way. He looked far from mediocre. With his barrel chest he would gallivant down the right wing, he would occupy defensive midfield, and he could partner Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic or Chris Smalling. There was enough there to give promise, and while Alex Ferguson’s declaration that he could be as good as Duncan Edwards was hyperbole, it did not seem daft to expect him to mature into a solid presence.
That maturity, though, at least on the pitch, never arrived. We can look at a few reasons why. Jose Mourinho appears to have given up on the idea of coaching any of his players, merely demanding their turn on or off according to his capricious whims. Louis van Gaal just packed the defence and midfield and asked nothing sophisticated of his player, technically or tactically. David Moyes was there too briefly to make an impact, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appears only able to improve the mood, not ability, of his team.
While the type of manager that a player gets is crucial, it is only half the battle. One can look at players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson and others to know that talent is part of the journey of a footballer, but the application to learn to be better is perhaps more than half of it. Kane and Ronaldo are committed to healthy perfection, and Henderson is committed to making the most of what is, to be honest, a limited player. Not one of them have let anything hold them back unless there was no way to combat it.
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The same can't be said for Jones. His injury record could be absolutely nothing to do with him, but the suspicion must be that he has failed to improve his physique to withstand the rigours of the Premier League. He has not really regressed as a player, but not once in the last seven years has he shown any kind of technical improvement on the pitch. His positioning remains woeful, and his technique remains sub-Maguire, even. His fast-thinking is as willing as ever, but whether he really takes a moment to examine things more broadly seems doubtful. The idea that he subjects his game to serious analysis, from outsiders or his own, is never mentioned. Presumably if he had worked on his game, we would have been told at some point. The evidence on the pitch suggests he hasn’t.
Now that Ed Woodward has departed United, it is worth linking the two. Woodward was obsessed with giving any squad player a new contract in order to preserve his value on the books. Wages be damned, the assets remained on the financial statements. Only after years of indulgence was doggerel like Chris Smalling and Daley Blind shifted well after their chances should have run out. Solskjaer’s on-pitch achievements are slight but undeniable, off the pitch he has done far better to whittle down the deadwood.
One of the last symbols of that inertia and lack of ambition is Jones. A perfectly normal bloke, it seems, happy to get on in life. But none of that has made him good enough for United, and his continued presence is a stain on the club’s strategy.
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