Phil who? This was the reaction of a lot of football fans when it emerged that the first major bidding war of the summer had broken out over a 19 year old Blackburn centre back. Liverpool looked as though they were wrapping up a deal for yet another promising youngster, as Kenny Dalglish looks to rebuild, but then Manchester United swooped in with Sir Alex Ferguson on his own reconstruction mission. A sizeable £16 million release clause in his contract was triggered and after a period of uncertainty, Fergie got his man.
Or should I say boy? Jones is currently with the England Under 21s for the European Championships. Against a Spain side much fancied to win the whole tournament, Jones won plaudits for his performance alongside another United youngster, Chris Smalling. Sir Alex bought him last summer and he has since proved himself as a top quality, capable defender, deputising for the increasingly injured Rio Ferdinand with composure beyond his years. The 21 year old was also praised universally by pundits and columnists and it was generally accepted that but for Jones and Smalling in central defence the Spanish would not have been held to a 1-1 draw.
It’s looking worryingly like the same old story for England fans, even at Under 21 level. On paper the squad of youngsters is stronger than most, bursting with names that have already gained considerable Premiership experience and demonstrated their skills on a tough stage. Some might even think it’s stronger than Fabio Capello’s first team and many players will be looking to break through. But following the promise of the hard fought draw with Spain, England drew 0-0 with Ukraine, with the only impressive performances coming once again from the defenders. Talented forwards with enormous potential simply didn’t deliver.
And literally as I write England have capitulated to a 2-1 defeat against the Czech Republic in a must win match. Danny Welbeck had headed them ahead with just twenty minutes or so to go, but then it all fell apart with an equaliser and a snatched winner as England poured forward in stoppage time. Their tournament is over. Stuart Pearce’s boys are no better at winning trophies than the men.
None of this will greatly concern Sir Alex Ferguson. He is used to watching England internationals as accomplished as Paul Scholes, David Beckham or Wayne Rooney go off to tournaments and return dejected and defeated. It did not stop them becoming phenomenally successful Old Trafford legends. He will set about the task of moulding Phil Jones and Chris Smalling into the perfect readymade pairing to replace the ageing Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
In an interview this week Smalling said that he liked to think both he and Jones had a mixture of Ferdinand’s passing ability and football brain, as well as Vidic’s hard as nails tackling prowess. This might be true because certainly Smalling has proved that he is no physical lightweight and Jones is versatile enough to play in midfield, so he can presumably pass a ball reasonably well. But there’s no doubt that Jones appears to be the tough tackling long term replacement for Vidic and Smalling the smoother operator to step into Ferdinand’s shoes. I mean he even looks a bit like Rio.
Jones proved his Vidic-esque credentials by almost singlehandedly taking United’s title challenge to the last day of the season. In the end a penalty earned the Reds a 1-1 draw at Ewood Park but Blackburn almost gave Chelsea hope thanks largely to Jones’ one man brick wall. Even on his Blackburn debut against Chelsea in March 2010, not long after his 18th birthday, Jones made his presence felt with some stinging but legal challenges on the likes of Frank Lampard.
Smalling meanwhile, as I said, has had a surprisingly key role over the last season at Old Trafford. I’m not sure even Fergie would have anticipated his rapid rise through the ranks, leaving the veteran manager contemplating selling the likes of Jonny Evans, John O’Shea and Wes Brown with not too much concern. Ferdinand’s fitness is unlikely to ever reach the heights of reliability and effectiveness again, meaning that Smalling will be called upon more and more often until eventually Rio is relegated to experienced squad member. The former Fulham man will grow in confidence the more he plays, so that he’ll be bringing the ball out of defence and looking for a killer pass as Ferdinand did in his prime, as well as covering superbly.
Jones and Smalling then have the potential to become a durable, formidable and complimentary partnership at the heart of one of the best teams in the land. Any understanding the two develop could also be transplanted beneficially into future England teams. But before such a partnership forms, they are going to have to compete against one another to play alongside Vidic for perhaps the next couple of seasons.
This time will test, trial and prove the individual ability of each player but will give them little chance to play together. If they have both been useful and their talents have passed the tests of high quality football on a regular basis at the Theatre of Dreams at the end of this period, then Sir Alex (or his successor) will have relatively cheap, and English, replacements for two of the best defenders the Premiership has ever known.
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The title is theirs. Carlo Ancelotti did his best to fire up the Chelsea players, repeatedly calling it their cup final, but the Red Devils proved too strong at Old Trafford. The Theatre of Dreams has been a fortress of consistency in a curiously unpredictable season. Often it’s appeared as though no one wanted the league enough but ultimately United’s experienced desire was superior, and it was at its lustful best against Chelsea.
It seems as though we might be witnessing a time of real change in football, particularly in the Premiership. Every team in the league is capable of taking points from the top sides. The notion of a traditional top four is crumbling and the ways in which clubs are preserving their success are evolving too. The era of the successful big money signing appears to have past. Of course there are exceptions, with Manchester City the latest to flash the cash, but the big teams doing well this season were not dependent on new signings or even one standout performer. Arsenal may have once again fallen at the crucial stage of the race, but they were United’s primary challengers for most of the campaign. Their squad has grown gradually over the years.
And so has Manchester United’s. Since the departure of Ronaldo to Real Madrid Sir Alex Ferguson has continued to ignore the calls from fans, myself included, for more expensive replacements. Instead he has focused on improving the players he already has by carefully managing their experience of important fixtures, as well as bringing in some future investments (with some paying off early, such as Javier Hernandez). The failures of other teams have proved his strategy right. He has also once again settled on a different tactical vision for his side. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Champions League.
United have not conceded a goal away from home in the competition. They have done this by mastering a drilled and disciplined style of play. In many ways this is at odds with the entertaining, attacking tradition of the club. But Ferguson has been wise enough to recognise that the strengths of his team have changed. In 2008 when they defeated Chelsea in the final, United were a team boasting the sparkle and individual talent of Berbatov, Rooney, Tevez and Ronaldo. These days United have become a highly efficient and effective collective unit. Their starting eleven appears inferior in terms of talent, but they are no longer dependent on stars to succeed.
Having said this they will still need the key players in their unit, particularly Rooney, to be at their best if they are to beat Barcelona at Wembley. This is because the Catalans have the collective mentality of the current United side, as well as happening to have a team bursting with world class footballers. Ferguson insists he knows where his team went wrong in the final of 2009 against the Spaniards. He has been able to rotate his squad with extreme flexibility to get what he wants from a game, with whoever comes in doing what is required of them. But against Barcelona nothing less than his best combination of midfielders will do.
For it was in midfield that United lost the 2009 final. They can take some comfort from the fact that Yaya Toure, who scored the goal that ended United’s treble hopes in the FA Cup semi with Man City, will no longer be an immovable object at Barcelona’s core. It was he that overpowered Carrick and co so fatally. But nowadays the likes of Javier Mascherano are there to provide a defensive screen from which Iniesta and Xavi can create for the devastating abilities of Villa and Messi up front. Somehow United’s players will have to get a grip on possession.
Carrick has been unfairly derided in the past. He is a world class passer of the ball who can provide both a defensive shield and attacking platform. In recent weeks his resurgent form has added vital impetus to a tough run in. But there will still be question marks over whether or not he will perform for the big occasion and whether he will once again be outmuscled. He seems likely to start though given his involvement lately, so Ferguson must decide who to play alongside him and in what formation.
With the main worry being a lack of possession it’s likely we’ll see a three man central midfield, with Rooney leading the line alone. This robs United’s prize asset of much of his threat and his deadly combination with Javier Hernandez. It will also put him under pressure that might lead to frustration, which is a dangerous cocktail for his volatile temperament. Against Chelsea a two fingered salute to the Blues fans was a sharp reminder that the striker is way off the level of maturity required for a captaincy, of England or his club.
Darren Fletcher could be the missing link, as he missed the final two years ago through suspension. He would add the grit that was so evidently missing that night. But this time around its fitness that will be a problem for the Scot. Giggs has been majestic in some vital fixtures this campaign but mediocre in others. Anderson and Scholes seem unlikely to feature, but Ji-Sung Park, especially after his man of the match display against Chelsea, might be chosen to be a busy thorn in Barcelona’s side. It’s interesting and baffling that Dimitar Berbatov, the team’s main source of goals in the league and an undoubtedly dazzling player, is not being seriously considered by any commentators for a starting place. Ferguson does not trust him for the big fixtures and Rooney plays better with Hernandez ahead of him. The Bulgarian’s future will be one to watch in the summer, despite being top scorer.
It’s a one off game at Wembley. Ferguson will have learnt genuine lessons from two years ago and the togetherness of his new team will be a challenge for Barcelona, just as their undeniable quality will be a challenge for United. The tantalising thing for United fans is that if they are successful here, in theory such a young squad should only improve with experience, without the need for drastic and expensive imports.
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