Did he have shingles, didn’t he have shingles? It really doesn’t matter. Manchester United’s Phil Jones should be nicknamed ‘The Rash’ from now on, regardless.
Back in my day, the unshakeable Martin Keown carried that moniker in Arsenal’s dressing room and it was a tag he held with great pride. Whenever strategic conservatism was required by the manager, the central defender would push into midfield and readily become a shackler supreme.
Each time it happened there was a glint in his eye. If you looked closely enough, a knowing, slightly sinister smile could even be spotted as he was handed his orders.
Breathing down their necks, handcuffed to their sides, unsettling their every move, Martin absolutely loved it. The talented talisman he’d been asked to follow, invariably didn’t. He’d almost always spoil their day completely.
Last weekend, under clear instructions from Sir Alex Ferguson to sabotage Marouane Fellaini’s afternoon at Old Trafford, Phil Jones did an outstanding job. Shadowing him tenaciously, Jones single-handedly ensured the giant Belgian’s threat was negated with the minimum of fuss.
Keeping the unstoppably brilliant Cristiano Ronaldo as quiet at the Santiago Bernabeu last night was never going to be as straightforward a task for Jones. Floating around the pitch like a perfectly preened panther, the Portuguese maestro was in no mood to be ‘taken out’ by a 20-year-old upstart from Preston.
Yet, the youngster did a magnificent job nonetheless. Assisting the hapless Rafael, mopping up behind the more-cultured Carrick, as well as providing an extra pair of hands to Jonny Evans and Rio Ferdinand, Fergie’s go-to stopper was everywhere, getting his hands as dirty as he possibly could.
There was nothing anybody could do about Ronaldo’s supreme headed goal, or the persistent menace he provided. However, if he hadn’t been tracked as diligently as he was by Jones, Manchester United wouldn’t be feeling anywhere near as confident about their chances of reaching the last eight today. His work and work-rate were invaluable.
Man-marking isn’t a glamorous art. It’s not for everyone. I don’t know too many people who’d stick their hand up and volunteer to do football’s equivalent of a day’s labouring.
Self-awareness is a key ingredient. Many footballers (in fact most) have delusions of grandeur when it comes to assessing their own abilities. Everybody wants to be a player. They want to show what they can do on the ball, and that’s normal.
To an extent, every professional footballer is a player. Messrs Keown and Jones would run rings around around 99.9 per cent of the population, but at the highest level? It’s different. Players have to be intelligent enough to recognise their own strengths and limitations.
Phil Jones is happy to do the ugly stuff. He isn’t just a self-sacrificing stopper though. At full-back we’ve enjoyed his marauding, occasionally mazy runs and in central defence – although raw – he’s clearly a defender of fine potential.
What he lacks in the grizzly, dare I say it, cynical qualities of my former Arsenal team-mate, the United man makes up for in his passion for defending, for stopping, for eliminating the danger – and that shone through amid the beauty of last night’s epic Real Madrid versus Manchester United spectacle.
The desire to thwart was etched on Jones’ face, and it’s a quality that will continue to be recognised by a manager who has always been prepared to set his stall out to nullify a danger man when the time is right.
It’s probably just me, but Phil Jones always reminds me of young farmer who’d look more at home sitting at the wheel of a tractor in his body warmer and wellington boots, than he does in a pair of white pumas on the international stage; but the boy knows what to do on a football pitch.
Most picture perfect dramas need a bit of rough to keep the story line real, to keep things interesting, and the 20-year-old played his part to perfection in the Spanish capital last night.
He won’t be required for man-to-man duties against Reading, QPR or Norwich, but Cristiano Ronaldo can expect to be reunited with ‘The Rash’ when the two giants reconvene on March 5.
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