U-21 England international Phil Jones is headed to Old Trafford this summer. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Phil Jones will join Manchester United this summer on a 5-year deal for a transfer fee believed to be £16.5 million. The U-21 England international made his debut for Blackburn Rovers just 15 months ago when he had the daunting task of facing Didier Drogba - it was a performance the then 18-year-old received rave reviews for after bravely dueling with the Ivorian. Since then, Jones has seen his stock rise - this has been clearly evident in the past few weeks as Arsenal FC, Liverpool FC, and United sought his services - with United ultimately penning him to a deal after triggering his release clause.
Despite being regarded as a center-back, Jones actually spent the majority of the 2010-11 Premier League season as a defensive-midfielder for Blackburn - 18 starts were made as a midfielder while only 6 starts were made as a center-back. The 19-year-old's long-term position is still expected to be center-back, but this versatility should serve both him and the club well in the near-term future - just as there is value in versatility in United's other impending signing - Ashley Young. With Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, and Chris Smalling at the club, regular time in defense may be tough to come by at the moment. However, time is on the side of the youngster and he may be able to still further his development by providing some bite in the midfield for United.
General Scouting Report
I have only watched Jones a handful of times in the past year or so; most recently being United's recent match at Ewood Park and this past Sunday's U-21 England vs Spain match-up. From my own limited observation of him, he appears to be very strong and to have good pace and mobility for a defensive player. In addition to this, the general scouting consensus appears to be that he's very strong in the air despite his height (various listings range from 5'11" - 6'2"), sound positionally, and having leadership qualities that have led some to audaciously predict him to be the future captain of England. This is not to imply that this subjective opinion is not informative nor valid, but perhaps we should also have a tangible examination of our new signing.
In the modern game, it is important for your defensive players to be able to ignite the attack from the back - even if it is just tidy square passes to more attack-minded teammates. At the very least, this allows your side to build-up an attack and it allows time for players to find space to expose. It also enables you to avoid the very worst - simply punting the ball high up the pitch or giving the ball away in a dangerous position after having just gained possession.
As a defensive-minded midfielder, Jones completed 330 passes this season out of an attempted 527 (63%). As a center-back, he completed 107 passes this season out of an attempted 171 (also 63%). While you would actually like this completion percentage to be higher for a player that plays in such a deep position on the pitch, it can anticipated to be higher while playing for United because Blackburn played in such a direct style - especially in the first half of the season under former manager Sam Allardyce.
Because one can reasonably anticipate passing percentage to drop as a player moves higher up the pitch, especially for a youngster playing in the midfield for the first time in the Premier League, a positive can be taken from Jones' distribution statistics this past season - he appears to be comparably comfortable on the ball in various areas on the pitch. An examination of this chalkboard, which shows Jones' passing versus Liverpool as a center-back, and then his passing again as a midfielder versus Chelsea FC one week later, reveals that he's generally tidy with his short range passing - no matter where he is on the pitch. When Jones attempts to be a bit more incisive or direct with his passing, he's a bit looser - this certainly is not an indictment on the young defensive player.
It is often the crunching tackle that is applauded at football grounds around the world, but it is the less revered interception that provides a side more consistent value. While a tackle can stymie an attack, the resulting scramble for the ball can often lead the opponent to quickly regain possession or to win the knockdown. An interception allows one's side to instantly gain possession while also having the possible benefit of catching the opponent out of position for a split second on the counter attack.
As a midfielder this season in 18 games, Jones had 50 interceptions (2.8/game) and 67 tackles won (3.7/game). Both are high rates and hint at two attributes: (1) good positional sense and reading of the game - even more impressive for a 19-year-old playing a new position in arguably the world's greatest football league. (2) good mobility. As a center-back in 7 games this season, Jones' interception rate improved to 31 (4.4/game) while his 24 tackles (3.4/game) remained comparable to his time in the midfield.
As previously mentioned, Jones may lack ideal height to be a center-back in the physically demanding Premier League, despite his reputed aerial prowess. In examining the 38 aerial challenges that the U-21 England international made this season as a center-back, he won 24 - good for a a 63% success rate. While this isn't a dominating rate, it certainly isn't one to be alarmed about as well. Perhaps because the sample size is so small, it may be prudent to wait before definitely drawing any conclusions about Jones' ability to defend through the air.
How does Jones fit at United?
For Jones' upcoming debut season at Old Trafford, it is quite possible that his versatility is maximized. With the likely departures of John O'Shea and Wes Brown, and with United only having Michael Carrick able to comfortably play a deep-lying role in the central midfield at the moment, Jones may be asked to play a utility role - filling in at times as a midfielder to shield the defense or even occasionally at full-back. And with both of Rio Ferdinand's injury-proneness and Jonny Evans' inconsistency from last season, and the sheer number of matches that United will play while doing battle on both the domestic and European front, United's newest member will likely get his chances to feature at center-back as well.
The transfer fee may be high for Jones or it may prove to be a bargain down the road - it's simply a guess at this point. With the outstanding Vidic and Ferdinand, and the up-and-coming Smalling, time is on the side of the 19-year-old and expectations will be tempered in the immediate future. If Jones' current partnership with Smalling on the U-21 level grows into a fruitful one down the road for both United and England, then the fee will have turned out to be a non-issue. In the mean time, I'd suggest for United supporters to simply observe Jones this summer in the U-21 European Championships and during the upcoming season. Even if you have might have reservations about the signing, keep in mind that we're currently in good hands with Rio, Vida, and Smalling - and that Fergie merely sees this as a succession plan for the former two.