Different injuries proven a worry
Injuries have arguably been the biggest inescapable blight on the beautiful game throughout history. A myriad of exhilarating footballing careers have been brought to a premature end down the years. From Just Fontaine to Ledley King, medical advancement still has its limits. Phil Jones has appeared to be heading down the early retirement route for several years. The man Sir Alex Ferguson once proclaimed could become Manchester United’s best-ever player has limped to just 175 appearances in six years in Manchester, with a whole catalogue of setbacks hampering his progress. What has been most worrying for Jones is that it has never been the same, recurring problem. Last season it was toe and knee problems that restricted Jones to 18 league appearances, eye and ankle damage in 2015/16, shin and hamstring in 2014/15. Mentally, the effects of remaining such a treatment room regular cannot be downplayed. However, so far this campaign, everything has gone swimmingly for Jones, better than even he could have hoped for in pre-season, as he has become the fulcrum of Jose Mourinho’s resolute United rearguard. No United defender has won more duels or made more interceptions, while only Antonio Valencia has completed more tackles, and Eric Bailly more blocks.
Becoming Mourinho’s main man
“If we manage to have him safe from injuries, I think he’s potentially everything I like in a central defender,” Mourinho said after United’s win over Leicester. High praise for a man who has worked some of the best defenders of the modern era. Mourinho spent big on the addition of Victor Lindelof in the summer, and the Swede looked set to be the long-term partner for Bailly Mourinho had been looking for. Chris Smalling, Daley Blind and Jones all would be therefore left to play second fiddle.
What can only be admired is Jones’s sheer determination to keep coming back. The doggedness of his displays this season, all while retaining that capacity to fluidly move the ball around, quickly, is never devoid of effort – this is not a man holding anything back on the battlefield, and he has deserved to become a regular starter so far this campaign. “There were big question marks over Phil Jones over the last couple of years with injuries and his form and I think he has come back to his critics with his form this year,” former United defender Gary Pallister – a player who knows a great deal about overcoming serious injury to be successful – told betsafe.com. “He has been one of our best players at the start of this season, it is terrific to see him recapture his form from when he came to Old Trafford.”
Plenty of work still to do
There are several caveats to take into account when assessing Jones’s impact at this juncture. Aside from the draw at Stoke, United have not come up against stern opposition that have really tested their resolve. Leicester had spells where they stretched Mourinho’s men, Southampton applied plenty of pressure on the south coast but, on the whole, it has been as comfortable an opening few months as Mourinho could have hoped. Also, as ever, an injury has reared its ugly head once more. Jones returned early from international duty last week with a knock, and, just when he is required most with the clash with Liverpool looming large on Saturday, it seemed once again Jones would be watching from a far. However, it appears Jones’s unexpected presence at Carrington last week was more of a precaution, and the 25-year-old is expected to be fit to take to the pitch at Anfield. And what a test it will be. For all Liverpool’s problems further back, their attack is as vibrant and interchangeable as any. Jones will have to draw on all his talents to nullify such a threat, but with the work ethic and intelligence to go with the physical defensive attributes, Jones is primed and ready to finally be stretched. Mourinho and Ferguson’s faith cannot be too misplaced, can it?