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Phil Jones, right, has mostly been deployed as a holding midfielder in Manchester United's biggest matches this season, and will likely be used there again tonight. Tom Purslow / Getty Images
Phil Jones, right, has mostly been deployed as a holding midfielder in Manchester United's biggest matches this season, and will likely be used there again tonight. Tom Purslow / Getty Images

Phil Jones provides power and protection in Manchester United midfield

"You could play him anywhere", but Sir Alex Ferguson will deploy his jack of all trades to nullify the threat of Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure, writes Richard Jolly.

The supposed destroyer, a man selected for his stamina, was gasping for breath after half an hour. He was replaced before the hour mark a player nicknamed "Three Lungs" looking more like "One Lung". Park Ji-sung was overrun, overpowered and, Sir Alex Ferguson swiftly concluded, over the hill.

That was an indication of Yaya Toure's destructive effect in the Manchester derby 12 months ago. While it took until the final seconds of the season for Sergio Aguero to clinch the title for Manchester City, the turning point occurred 13 days earlier. Manchester United had neither an answer to Toure nor an equivalent of him.

Nor did they try to find one in the summer transfer window, when Ferguson quickly off-loaded Park. To some surprise, he has not bought a specialist senior central midfielder since Anderson and Owen Hargreaves arrived in 2007. The absence of a Toure type is often described as the biggest failing in the United squad.

Yet tonight Toure is likely to encounter a similarly sizeable presence in the midfield. Given his fondness for rotation, there may be no such thing as Ferguson's strongest team. Yet when the major matches come around, Phil Jones is invariably included, if fit.

Seen as a jack of all trades in his first season at Old Trafford, the 21-year-old Englishman is starting to concentrate on one. He is United's designated midfield powerhouse, instructed to negate and nullify.

When selected in the centre at Tottenham Hotspur, it was seen as a ploy to stop Gareth Bale. When he was chosen in midfield against Everton in February, it was as Marouane Fellaini's man-marker. Very different tasks were executed admirably.

For the most intimidating game of the season, when the defensive midfielder's duties were complicated by the presence of the elusive Mesut Ozil and the irrepressible Cristiano Ronaldo, he started against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and enhanced his reputation. But for an ankle injury, it is a role he would surely have reprised in the second leg.

A further indication of Jones's importance came at Stamford Bridge last Monday. When the team sheets arrived, it was assumed he was starting at right-back. Instead, he returned to the midfield, with the winger Antonio Valencia standing in at full-back in the reshuffle. With Chelsea's trio of playmakers - Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar - converging in the middle, the greater priority was solidity in the centre. Despite defeat, Jones provided it. He and Valencia were two to escape criticism from Ferguson.

"You could play him anywhere," the Scot said, likening Jones to Brian McClair, the most versatile member of his squad in the 1990s. "I think you could play him centre-forward. He's just that type of player; he's an animal for football. He grasps the game, he understands it. Play him right-back? Brilliant. Play him centre-midfield? No problem. Play him centre-back? Terrific."

The same is true of Toure. The Ivorian is adaptable enough to have played in the centre of defence in a Champions League final, for Barcelona and against United, and at times to be used, by Roberto Mancini, just behind a sole striker. Jones, who has spent more of his career in defence, is less experienced in the final third of the pitch but also proves physical force and footballing ability is a useful combination anywhere.

In Jones's auspicious start to Old Trafford last season, it brought a comparison with one of United's lost greats, a victim of the 1958 Munich plane disaster and a player assumed able to play anywhere.

"If you talk to Bobby Charlton," said Paddy Crerand, his European Cup-winning teammate, "Phil Jones reminds him of Duncan Edwards, with his power and build."

It was a compliment that doubled as a burden. Jones's task tonight is actually to emulate men such as Phil Neville and John O'Shea, used in midfield by Ferguson for their defensive nous and chosen in bigger games to stifle technical talents.

His partnership with Michael Carrick is one of silk and steel but, elegant as the older man is, he cannot go toe to toe with Toure.

If United are to prosper, Jones must ensure it is not another walk in the park for City's all-action Ivorian.

 

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