x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Phil Jones is stuck in the middle of things

Phil Jones' selection in midfield for England was a sign of the faith both his managers have in him, but it is clear his future lies in central defence.

Phil Jones, in white, tangles with Spain's Sergio Busquets at Wembley Stadium on Saturday.
Phil Jones, in white, tangles with Spain's Sergio Busquets at Wembley Stadium on Saturday.

As the world's best side retreated from Wembley Stadium, bound for Costa Rica, English triumphalism was tempered by the recognition that while they beat Spain in a friendly on Saturday, they could not claim to have outplayed them. Rather, it was a victory forged by determined defenders and indomitable midfielders.

And yet among them was a man who illustrates that footballing leaps of logic can result in a paradox.

An attacking defender is not necessarily a midfielder. Phil Jones's considerable and varied attributes equip him to play in many a position to an exalted standard but Spain suggested he should be confined to the back four.

While the sight of the teenager towering over Xavi and Andres Iniesta seemed a chapter from Gulliver's Travels, a giant in Lilliput or, more pertinently, a sign that English football favours brawn and Spain brain, Barcelona's undersized maestros were able to dart around him.

Jones was at his most effective when able to surge forward into open space.

While manager Fabio Capello's master plan paid off handsomely, the architects were the other members of the central unit; Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka, the former Everton colleagues reunited in the middle of defence, and Scott Parker and Frank Lampard, the scrapper and the schemer alongside Jones in the midfield.

While only Lampard of that quartet has more than 14 caps, none is younger than 29.

Seniority and responsibility was apparent in their concentration, judgement and nous, not youthful exuberance.

In comparison, Jones's brief and bold Manchester United career has been notable for his buccaneering spirit, for his capacity to stroll out of defence and power upfield. A side in the ascendant has been lent more adventure by the intrepid ingenue.

Yet England's demands were very different on Saturday; Capello's acknowledgement that his team could not play Spain at their own game required positional discipline.

In midfield - indeed arguably especially there - experience tends to be the pre-requisite.

Parker is a case in point, a player who has learnt over the years that, despite his early attacking brio, his strong point is patrolling the area in front of the defence. The terrier is a natural holding player, the thoroughbred is not.

It is a role Jones occupied for half of last season, but the job description at Blackburn Rovers varies from the needs of United or England.

Then, in a more direct game, his duties often involved heading the ball away as manager Sam Allardyce took the opportunities to cram four centre-halves into the same side (Gael Givet, at left-back, completed the quartet, with Ryan Nelsen and Christopher Samba the chosen centre-backs).

Passing was less of a priority but it is not a blueprint that Capello, even when going on the defensive, will adopt.

It is telling that, despite the pronounced lack of a high-class specialist, Sir Alex Ferguson has not asked Jones to anchor the midfield. Rather, his one outing for United there occurred, like Saturday's display, on the right of a tight trio in the centre. As those two matches have been away against Liverpool at Anfield and against Spain, that is a steep learning curve.

It also shows the trust two distinguished managers have placed in him.

The notion that Jones is such a special talent that he can be utilised anywhere in elite company has been advanced by the comparisons with Duncan Edwards, a previous precocious arrival with a similarly strapping build and a fearlessness that allowed him to perform immediately on the major stages.

Edwards, perhaps the greatest loss of the eight United players who died of the injuries he suffered in the Munich Air Disaster of 1958, was a wing-half.

Translate a defunct position to the modern game and some will argue a midfielder is the closest equivalent, others a defender. In Jones's case, the confusion is understandable. Yet, while the notion that he is a future England captain has swiftly become entrenched, just as clear should be that his long-term future lies in the centre of defence.

For both club and country, a wait may be required before he has displaced the incumbents. But in the short term, this most privileged of apprenticeships should be served at right-back, rather than in midfield.

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Capello's task of narrowing down a pool of perhaps 40 possibles to the 23 players he will take to Poland and Ukraine next summer has probably been complicated by the biggest scalp of his regime.

Watching the defiance of Jagielka and Lescott against Spain, it was strange to think that both have been on the margins of the Italian's team recently.

Each was in danger of becoming a forgotten man, trapped between the tried-and-trusted pair of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand and by the emerging generation of Jones and Chris Smalling and behind Gary Cahill in the queue to partner the captain.

While each advanced his case on his finest display for his country, there are also grounds to select a pairing who perform so well in harness with one another.

And yet if Jagielka and Lescott both travel to Euro 2012, the pecking order will have been subjected to a dramatic rethink.

Often players' reputations are enhanced when they miss an England game. On this occasion, they were elevated by their presence.

sports@thenational.ae


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