Manchester United’s defensive ‘crisis’ could be a blessing in disguise for the English champions tonight.
The Bavarians arrived already crowned champions in the Bundesliga hoping to defend their Champions League title under new manager Pep Guardiola. Meanwhile, Manchester United have endured a tough and disappointing first season under new boss David Moyes and the Champions League remains their only avenue of qualifying for the competition next term as they currently sit in seventh place in the Premier League.
To add injury to insult, David Moyes now has a selection headache this evening with right back Rafael missing training on Monday and expected to miss the clash tonight through injury – one of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Antonio Valencia will have to play out of position against none other than Ballon d’Or third prize winner Franck Ribery.
Whilst the obvious choice on the right of the back four would be Chris Smalling who has featured there previously for Manchester United, Phil Jones should be the man David Moyes employs in that position.
Even though it’s not his natural position and it’s not a position he is familiar with, his qualities are better suited to a face-off with the French forward than any of his teammates.
In fact, I’d even go as far as to say he would be the ideal even if Rafael were available.
Phil Jones is the best young defending in England at just 22 years of age but what stands him head and shoulders above his contemporaries is his intelligence most aptly demonstrated by his performance at the Bernabeu against former United favourites Cristiano Ronaldo.
Jones played as a defensive midfielder on the night, tasked with limiting the Ballon d’Or first prizewinner’s effectiveness and thus minimizing Real Madrid’s effectiveness on the night.
It was February last year in the round of sixteen and although United went out at Old Trafford on the return leg of the tie via some poor refereeing decisions, the stars of the show in the Spanish capital had been goalkeeper David De Gea who was magnificent and Phil Jones who put in one of the best defensive performances of the competition last term – as a midfielder alongside Michael Carrick.
As you can see from this video, Jones operated in central areas just in front of the back four and strayed wide to deal with Ronaldo, in which he was remarkably successful – he blocked shots, made last ditch tackles but, in my estimation, his awareness to nick the ball early and diffuse the threat before it became on is why he should play against Ribery tonight – both Ribery and his opposite on the flank Arjen Robben will run at United’s fullbacks tonight, looking to pull them in close and then leave them for dead, they will try to trick at every turn, not only their markers but the referee too.
What Moyes will require from whoever he deploys at right back is composure and concentration – without the ball, the fullbacks will need to occupy space and avoid coming into contact with the wide men of Bayern and avoid at all costs going to ground or they could find themselves down a goal or a man within minutes.
This job is custom-built for Phil Jones on the right – he plays with a mentality of safety first and he is much calmer and considered in his approach than Smalling, Rafael and even the skipper Vidic.
He has the legs to chase up and down and the engine to keep that up over 90 minutes and his ability in midfield to pass and keep the flow running smooth could be a welcome relief to a United side who will likely find themselves without the ball and chasing shadows for long periods.