The England defender has not found his best position because he is in the process of inventing it
Such is the power of perception, even at the highest level of football, that it is sometimes tempting to wonder about the effects of nominative determinism: or in other words, the power of a name. For example, is it a help or a hindrance to be called Phil Jones – rather than, say, Rio Ferdinand or Holger Badstuber or Ze Phil Jones – when by trade you find yourself cast as an athletic, versatile all-round defensive stitcher.
A Phil Jones who scores 25 goals a season might be easy to get a handle on. But a Phil Jones whose impact is at times compelling, at others diffuse is a little more difficult to gauge. At least, from the outside anyway. Sir Alex Ferguson may not have played Jones in every match, but he played him in some vital ones, most notably drawing a performance of hyper-mobile stickability as a defensive marker in the Bernabéu last season. And just in case he was ever in any doubt David Moyes now has a very clear idea of his No4's sphere of influence after a commanding and versatile performance in the 1-0 defeat of Arsenal at Old Trafford.
There are those who will maintain that this was essentially a destructive contribution in a match of distinct and very British muscularity (by the end United had seven British players on the pitch). For the Jones-sceptic this is a player whose capacities are best suited to moments of hand-picked destruction-to-order, to a concession of midfield rather than an engagement, hence his failure to settle into the more nuanced requirements of a regular fixed position in the United team. The answer may be growing slightly clearer. But confronted with a player of great but flickering promise, the question still remains: how do you solve a problem like Phil Jones?
Not that Jones was anything but magnificent against Arsenal. Starting in a deep midfield position, he kicked things off by fouling Santi Cazorla inside the opening 10 seconds. After which he was more precise. There was a thrilling solo run from midfield that saw Jones briefly take on the entire Arsenal defence like a crash-tackle Maradona. At times he seemed to be playing in among the centre-backs, so manically diligent was his covering every time one of United's full-backs took more than 10 paces forward. Characteristically his value on the night tends to slip through the gaps of the bald match stats: no shots, 21 passes overall (albeit with a 90% completion rate) and just 50% of his "duels" won scarcely matches his influence, which is better reflected by 13 successful blocks, interceptions and clearances, the best of them the montage-gold full length slide to stop Cazorla shooting in the first half.
There was doggedness – booked for the clash of heads at a corner with Wojciech Szczesny, moments later he was being hacked down by Matthieu Flamini in the centre circle – and also evidence of his on-off deceptive ease with the ball at his feet, and of the flexibility of his movements. For all his enduring puppy-flesh Jones is a real physical specimen, a man who looks and indeed plays like a footballing equivalent of a rugby back-row forward, the mobile destroyer-creator tending to those moments of breakdown and transition.
The problem for Jones here is that this is all very well, but it isn't a regular job in a team that generally goes out expecting to dominate possession. It has already been suggested Sunday's performance might even harm his future prospects, pigeon-holing him even more decisively as a man for the big match space-killer role and taking him another nudge away from establishing himself as a ball-playing centre-back.
There are two obvious answers to this. First, Jones was also excellent at centre-back after half-time against Arsenal, albeit he was rescued once by Jonny Evans, who managed to divert Bacary Sagna's cross away from Kieran Gibbs.
Beyond this the other answer to the Jones conundrum is that he's not really a conundrum after all. Better perhaps to see him simply as a very modern, generation-next kind of footballer, a re-gearing of the utility defender for an age when attack itself has become ever more diffuse. Midfielders and strikers have experienced a general opening out, a relaxing of the old positional certainties. Surely it is time for defensive players also to become more fluent and adaptable, just as Jones's expertly enacted role against Arsenal was a response to a specific fluidity in the opposition in that area of the pitch.
It is perhaps just time to give this kind of performance a new name. Utility defender has pejorative associations. The false four might be better. Or the inverted sweeper. Or the polyvalent pocket picker. Either way it is not a new idea even in English football where the notion of a versatile, mobile defender able to play between the defensive lines has been a distant dream since the 1970s, inspired no doubt by Beckenbauer-envy and fanned most recently by the early promise of Rio Ferdinand who for all his later success never really developed in the direction of the ball-carrying elan he showed at the 2002 World Cup.
Jones is a fair way short of such heights, but it is worth remembering that at the same age Ferdinand was still at West Ham United. With game time limited and positional variation common, it is perhaps the case that top level footballers will more often come into bloom in their early 20s, as Aaron Ramsey and Andros Townsend have this season. More compelling is the notion that Jones is simply waiting for the right role to catch up with him. Not quite a centre-half, not quite a right-back, perhaps he is best simply left to blossom as an entirely legitimate defensive specialist in evolutionary times for the area between attack and midfield. And above all to consider the wider tactical picture for a player whose gifts speak to the broader challenge of what defending is actually supposed to look like in an age of fluid and varied attack.