Sir Alex Ferguson has entrusted 20-year-old Phil Jones with the enormous responsibility of shackling some of the Premier League's most influential players in recent weeks. Will the versatile player have the daunting task of limiting Cristiano Ronaldo's influence?
Phil Jones -- if deemed fit -- is possible to have a key role on Wednesday when Manchester United take on Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. The talented 20-year-old has voiced his opinion that center-back is his preferred and best position. However, due to his versatility, and also due to United having a plethora of talented central-defenders, he's often been used at right-back and also in central-midfield. At the current moment, it's in the latter role where he offers the most value to his club.
Much has been made in recent years about the vulnerabilities of United's midfield. While they do have some fine players there, and while the partnership of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley has been a relatively balanced revelation this season, Sir Alex Ferguson's side still can lack the necessary bite against mobile, driving, and/or physical opposition. At times, they are either overrun or they fail to provide enough drive and guile to skip past a fortified opposition midfield. In recent domestic matches, this has been particularly evident against the likes of Everton, Totthenham Hotspur, and Manchester City.
As of late, Ferguson has done well to rectify some of his side's vulnerabilities and it's been the versatile Jones that has patched up some of the problems. During the season's opening fixture, Marouane Fellani had his way against United at Goodison Park, particularly versus midfielder Michael Carrick in emergency center-back duty that night. The visitors had extreme difficulties in finding a way to physically cope with the influential midfielder. The big-haired Belgian was the pivot in attack for Everton as everything ran through him -- particularly his chest and head. He himself was a massive goal-threat in the box and outside of it, he supplied simple passes out wide for Leighton Baines or flicked on balls for Steven Pienaar during his diagonal runs towards goal. It was deserving that Fellaini scored the winner that night after overpowering a hapless Carrick for a
header haired-in goal.
Yesterday, though, during the reverse fixture at Old Trafford, Jones was tasked with a man-marking role on Fellaini and quite simply, the Englishman had the Belgian in his pocket. Michael Cox, in a piece for the Guardian, does well to describe how Jones was so effective against Fellaini -- particularly in this paragraph:
"Whereas defensive players usually concentrate on remaining goalside of opponents, in certain situations – when Fellaini was high up the pitch – Jones was content to get in front of his opponent. A key feature of Fellaini's game is his ability to bring the ball down on his chest, shield the ball from his opponents, and play in onrushing midfielders. Jones's brave positioning prevented this and Fellaini's chest control was barely noticeable."
Perhaps more relevant for the upcoming Madrid tie, though, is the role Jones played against Tottenham's Gareth Bale last month. On a snowy day at White Hart Lane, the Englishman put in a steely shift and helped shackle the Welshman. Just like he was yesterday versus Everton, Jones was the right-sided player in a double-pivot (one of the '2' in United's 4-2-3-1ish shape). However, his role against Spurs was different than the one he had against the Toffees.
Wheras Jones was essentially man-marking Fellaini and following him all around the Old Trafford pitch, at White Hart Lane, he was tasked with guarding a zone -- particularly the inside right zone just in front of the back four. During the reverse fixture in September, Spurs ran wild -- particularly Bale, Moussa Dembele, and Jan Vertonghen -- as these left-sided players surged through United's inside right for chance after chance. Dembele, in particular, is a player that has had all sorts of joy against Ferguson's side in recent years, whether that be for Spurs or for his former club Fulham. Therefore, it was hardly surprising when the United manager tasked Jones as his natural foil in last month's reverse fixture.
What's really interesting, though, is that Jones was also given the responsibility to bracket the dangerous Bale. Rafael has generally done well against the Spurs left-sided attacker in recent years but the Welshman has increasingly become more influential. With Jones playing gatekeeper to the inside left channel for Spurs, Bale was forced wide where Rafael dealt with him well. Whenever the Welshman darted inward, the inside cover that the Englishman provided was typically enough to snuff out any danger. Perhaps Ferguson has the same idea in mind for Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo.
There might not be another football manager that better understands -- and appreciates -- the talents of the talismanic Ronaldo. The Portuguese attacker grew up and reached incredible heights at The Theatre of Dreams and perhaps the culmination of his time there was his Ballon d'Or and UEFA Champions League triumph in 2008. Ferguson is surely alert to Ronaldo's enormous talents and he's likely been scheming for weeks on how to contain the world's second best player.
While Bale is a genuine match-winner on his day, he's not in the league of Ronaldo. In addition, there are some clear differences in their playing styles as well. Ronaldo aggressively positions himself high up the pitch on the inside-left -- where he's essentially more of a striker than a winger -- while Bale tends to base his positioning in deeper positions on the left. Therefore, whenever the Madrid attacker receives the ball, it's often in space high up the pitch and this leads to quick attacks -- quick enough to where help is not always able to arrive in time for those trying to defend him.
Nonetheless, Jones is very possible to be deployed in an inside-right position so that he can help provide inside cover against Ronaldo. It might even be deeper and farther to the right than he was against Spurs. Rather than guard a zone like he did against both Dembele's driving runs forward and Bale's forays inside, he may be tasked with a more extreme role of always being available to double up on Ronaldo. If this happens, this is likely to have repercussions elsewhere on the pitch.
Madrid's midfielder that generally is the one driving forward -- Sami Khedira -- is typically right of center while their deep-lying playmaker -- Xabi Alonso -- tends to sit in front of the back four in a left of center position (unless he's instructed to press). Therefore, unless the duo switch sides -- which I suppose they could do -- Jones wouldn't have to worry about midfield runners. That would leave his midfield partner though -- presumably Michael Carrick -- exposed and having to worry about the likes of Khedira, Mesut Ozil, and Angel di Maria's cuts inside from his right-winger position.
Many are likely expecting Wayne Rooney, or possibly Shinji Kagawa, in the No.10 role on Wednesday night. However, in the scenario I just outlined, it may be more prudent to have a proper central-midfielder like Cleverley or Anderson play as a as a nominal No.10. With Carrick and the United central-defenders occupied by Madrid's striker (Gonzalo Higuain or Karim Benzema), Ozil, and Khedira's driving runs forward, it would be essential for the player in behind Robin van Persie to stay consistently goalside of Alonso and harass him when Madrid are in possession. United's left-sided attacker -- whether that be Rooney, Kagawa, Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young, or possibly Nani -- would likely need to tuck inside in order to offer further security in the middle. This would eventually lead to Madrid's right-side having all sorts of space to work with.
The player with the most space to exploit on Wednesday night could be Madrid right-back Alvaro Arbeola. In fact, if Jones is used to bracket Ronaldo, he likely will be the player dared forward. It might be a risk Ferguson is willing to take.
During Euro 2012, Arbeola -- Spain's first-choice right-back then -- was often dared forward because the opposition logically deemed him to be the least dangerous threat on a side that contained the likes Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Jordi Alba, etc. Ferguson may prefer Arbeola having time and space with the ball rather than Ronaldo, di Maria, Ozil, etc. This is also a tactic the United manager has used to great effect in the past versus Chelsea. The Reds would often dare Blues right-back Branislav Ivanovic forward because they didn't feel he could be incisive in attack.
All of this, of course, is dependent on Jones being fit enough to feature and then actually being deployed in this defensive role. With Jones' recent successes, though, against some of the Premier League's most influential players -- particularly against Bale -- it seems reasonable that Ferguson could deploy him in a role where his main purpose is to limit Ronaldo's influence. The upcoming European night at the historic Bernabeu could be the Englishman's biggest challenge of his professional life.