Connect in the back of the net

No favours were done to Phil Jones when Alex Ferguson predicted he could “become the greatest player in Manchester United’s history” and Bobby Charlton likened him to Duncan Edwards.

They were dangerous prophecies that would hang around the neck of a youngster, still adapting to the pressures of moving to Old Trafford for a significant fee, like a noose.

Still, when Jones played at the heart of the defence that won Manchester United’s last league title as a 21-year-old in 2013, very few would have said Jones would only add 14 more England Caps to the fifth he picked up in that May’s 1-1 draw with Republic of Ireland in Dublin.

 

Torrid injury problems

A torrid time with injury, specifically with a troublesome knee, has curtailed his progress since and his longest run of consecutive starts for United since he joined from Blackburn in 2011.

The knee injury he suffered in September was the 28th injury or illness he has picked up during his time at Old Trafford and with a 12-game absence, adding to the 84 he has missed whilst with United, robbing him of the chance to impress new manager Jose Mourinho, who emphasises the need for permanently fit players as Chris Smalling and Luke Shaw have harshly discovered, time seemed to be counting down for the defender.

As Mourinho was questioning Smalling and Shaw for their absence in the 1-3 win at Swansea, Jones had just finished his first 90 minutes since he featured in the 2-0 loss at Stoke on Boxing Day last year.

The 24-year-old has not missed a minute since as United have embarked on a mini 8-match unbeaten run.

The sight of Mourinho shouting in the defender’s ear as United held on to win 1-2 at Crystal Palace on Wednesday night suggests he is now integral to the charge that is slowly building under the Portuguese coach.

The habit of drawing games that should have been won has not been eradicated with narrow victories over Palace or Spurs, but momentum is growing and central to that has been a resilience Mourinho has instilled since they were so resoundingly pummelled 4-0 by Chelsea.

The injury suffered to Eric Bailly at Stamford Bridge was perceived as salt to the wound of that defeat but it has instead presented an opportunity to Jones who has built a solid yet-makeshift pairing with Marcos Rojo.

 

Outstanding

Jones was outstanding in the draw at Everton, another game United were unfortunate not to win, and the defeat of Spurs and it spoke favourably of his form alongside Rojo that a returning Bailly, impressive at centre-half since making the £30 million switch from Villarreal, could only find room at right-back at Selhurst Park.

After two similarly injury-hit and underwhelming seasons under Louis Van Gaal, Rojo was another who seemed to be on his way out as Mourinho took the reins but he is too undergoing a resurgence. Jones and Rojo, a curious combination of two left-footers, still seem an odd couple but they are forming a dependable partnership.

“I think we’re getting a really good understanding with each other” Jones told MUTV, “I know his game, he knows mine and we’re complementing each other well at the moment and long may it continue.”

 

Remarkable composure

Having developed a reputation for the eccentric in the form of wandering out of position, the facial expressions and the unorthodox methods that saw him once dive to head the ball away from Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud’s foot when he was shaping to shoot, Jones has been a picture of calm upon his return, not making a single foul in any of his 8 appearances for United this season.

It is a stunning statistic when considered Jones has had to deal with Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane during this spell and the composure that has seen him make just 12 tackles across the 8 games has been required with Rojo displaying the rash thinking that nearly got him sent off for dangerous play against Everton and then against Palace.

Whilst Rojo was lucky to stay on the field for his wild lunge at Wilfried Zaha, Jones quietly held the back-line together and dealt well with the threat of Christian Benteke.

Though Palace were often too quick to go long towards their target-man, Jones remained resilient and won all four of his headers and limiting the home side to just 3 shots on target; one of them James McArthur’s equaliser that was carved by Damien Delaney’s superb, though wholly-unexpected, back-heel.

 

A recall seems to beckon

It is now over a year since Jones won his last England cap, coming on as a late substitute in the friendly win over France in November 2015, and a recall seems to be the natural next stage of the defender’s long-awaited rehabilitation.

Mourinho, who has seen Jones benefit from working with his own trusted medical staff, certainly thinks a return will not be far away.

“He’s giving hope to everyone that he can be back to normality,” said the Portuguese. Jones will be aware though just how quickly that normality can evaporate into setback.

The defender will be cautious enough to take each game individually and he perhaps won’t be considered as United’s greatest ever player anytime soon, but his current run is enough for United, Mourinho and most importantly Jones, now with his injury hell firmly behind him.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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