What is next for Manchester United's Chris Smalling and Phil Jones?
Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have been the prospective lynchpins of Manchester United and England’s defences since they joined the Old Trafford side in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
However, their potential has never been fulfilled and questions are ever-more-frequently surfacing over whether they can still blossom into the players that Sir Alex Ferguson expected them to become.
On paper they seemed the perfect replacements for United’s legendary but aging centre-back partnership, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
Smalling was tall, athletic and had a deceptive turn of pace, whilst Jones thrived on getting involved with his opponents and attacking the ball.
Whilst they still retain those attributes, they have failed to develop other crucial aspects of the game: positional sense, reading of the game, composure.
Smalling finally began to show signs that he was developing into a more mature performer towards the end of this season.
He was the man who put his hand up when manager Louis Van Gaal set the challenge for one of his roster of central defenders to emerge as the leader at the back.
At 25, the ex-Fulham and Maidstone United man is showing signs of development at just the right time, as the number of chances he was going to get to prove himself were surely running out.
He is still by no means the finished product.
Questions are constantly raised in the media over his distribution, although an impressive pass completion rate of 88.7% puts him comfortably above his defensive colleagues in that department.
The problem remains that, although he has played with greater authority since the turn of the year, his performances have not been enough to stop United’s defence from looking worrying porous.
Sir Alex Ferguson described Rio Ferdinand in his autobiography of being a ‘Rolls-Royce’ of a defender, such was the ease with which he played the game.
Currently, Smalling is far from replicating that level of authority.
However, if Smalling falls short of displaying Ferdinand’s composure, Jones is the recently retired ex-England captain’s antithesis.
How a young footballer who showed enough potential for Ferguson to declare that he could become the greatest player in Manchester United’s history, could have regressed to the farcical figure who caused international delight by tackling Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud with his head last month is hard to comprehend.
It is impossible to doubt Jones’ commitment, his bravery, or his physical aptitude.
It is equally as impossible to ignore the fact that at times, Jones’ defending spreads panic throughout the team.
What exactly it is that Jones does that makes him liable to such unusual and inexplicable lapses is hard to identify.
But at 23, it would have been expected that the Lancastrian would have by now established himself as one of the premier defenders in world football.
As it is, he hasn’t even established himself as first choice for either club or country.
The mitigating factor behind the stalling nature of each player’s progression is their dismal injury records.
In not one of the nine seasons they have played at Manchester United between them has either player appeared in 30 Premier League games.
Although injuries are to a large extent down to luck, it is hard to understand how both players have been so prone to injury over the years.
Are the player’s preparing for games properly, or is there some flaw in the Old Trafford physio department?
The one time either player has been able to stave off injury for a considerable period of time, Smalling established himself as the first defender on the team sheet, and even took the captain’s armband in the same Arsenal match that Jones head-butted the floor.
Ironically, Smalling’s spell of form could have bought not just himself another season of opportunities for United, but Jones as well.
If Smalling has truly matured, and proves this by making further strides next season, then there is no reason why Jones – who is two years his compatriot’s junior – could not follow suit.
However, Van Gaal’s remit for next season will be to secure United the Premier League title, and his patience with the pair’s defensive lapses will alter accordingly.
Neither will leave Old Trafford this summer. Jonny Evans, at 27, has had more chances to prove his worth than either Smalling or Jones, and has consistently come up short.
Similarly, last summer’s Argentinean acquisition Marcos Rojo looks to be susceptible under the high ball, and is behind the two Englishmen in the pecking order.
Rumours abound that Van Gaal is looking to bolster his options at the back, with German star Mats Hummels being the name that refuses to go away, and Rojo’s international teammate Nicolas Otamendi being strongly linked with a switch to Manchester.
The suspicion is, however, that Jones and Smalling will be given one last season to prove their worth and achieve their potential.
Should they succeed, United and England fans could finally be treated to a dynamic and exciting central defensive partnership to rival any in the world.
Should they fail, they will surely be facing an exit from Old Trafford, amidst accusations of young footballers who failed to live up to the sky-high expectations set for them by one of the most respected managers in the sport’s history.
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