Alasdair Hooper looks at Phil Jones’ career at Old Trafford after the Manchester United defender made is 200th appearance for the club.
After the frenzy of Boxing Day football died down there was one particular statistic that caught my eye.
Manchester United defender Phil Jones had made his 200th appearance for the club when he was picked to start in their 3-1 win over Huddersfield by caretaker boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.Embed from Getty Images
To make that many appearances for a club like Manchester United should be considered quite a feat.
Yet isn’t it striking that Jones – for all his potential as a youngster and his ability – is often seen more as a meme than as a footballer?
So what do we actually make of Phil Jones’ career at Old Trafford – a story of unfulfilled potential, or a victim of social media?
The successors to Vidic and Ferdinand?
Let’s travel back in time to 2011, the year Jones was signed by Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson from Blackburn Rovers.
Jones had arrived a year after the transfer of Chris Smalling from Fulham and both players had been central defensive partners for the England U21s at the 2011 European Championships in Denmark.
Though England failed to get out of the group at that tournament one of the big plus points – mentioned repeatedly by Martin Tyler on commentary duty – was the relationship the two would-be United team-mates had struck up.Embed from Getty Images
That bode very well for the future when Manchester United stalwarts Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic would call it a day.
While there remained a few years until the departures of Ferdinand and Vidic, Jones was often used by Ferguson in his early days at Manchester United.
He made 41 appearances in his first season at Old Trafford, often playing in midfield or at right back.
There was plenty of praise coming from pundits about his versatility but, similarly, the debate raged on about whether his versatile nature might hinder him.
But what was not in question was his ability – you wouldn’t often find a centre-back capable of playing full back or bursting forward as a box-to-box midfielder.
The treatment table
So what has changed the Phil Jones narrative from that early Old Trafford spell?
Here we are seven years later and Phil Jones is often labelled as a ‘joke’ coupled with humorous gifs on Twitter.Embed from Getty Images
A large part of the drop in praise can be put down to injuries, there have been too many since his first season.
According to Transfermarkt the defender has suffered 18 different injuries since the start of the 2012/13 season meaning his career has too often been a stop-start journey.
That list includes hamstring injuries, ankle problems and concussion.
As most professionals would probably attest to, it also takes time to get back into your rhythm and to get your match fitness back.
What’s more when you’re not playing regularly it gives someone else an opportunity to take your place.
Beaker the Muppet
What also hinders Jones in the way he is perceived by the public is his unfortunate likeness to Beaker from The Muppets with his facial expressions.
A quick Google image search of the United defender will return a number of pictures of the trademark gurn that you usually find littered all over social media.Embed from Getty Images
This has only added to this comical attitude towards a player who was never the most graceful of individuals on the pitch anyway.
One particular moment that sticks in the mind is the ‘emergency crawl’ he demonstrated in a match against Arsenal in May 2015.
After losing his balance he did everything in his power and managed to get his head on the ball while pulling off a motion that would normally be associated with an athlete in a swimming pool.
That arguably kick-started the Phil Jones GIF revolution but what seemed to have been lost on many viewers was the fact that he didn’t actually give up on the ball.
A lot of players would have accepted defeat in that situation.
Phil Jones going forward
The situation is still one of comedy for Phil Jones.
His own goal against Valencia in the Champions League and his tumble over the advertising hoardings against Young Boys – despite being one of the best players on the pitch that night – are what attracts the headlines.Embed from Getty Images
But there remains a talented defender in there, one that is looking for consistency in his performances and in his game time.
Jones has started both of Solskjaer’s two games in charge so far and he will be hoping that faith placed in him will lead to more starts and more appearances.
The defender turns 27 in February and time is still on his side to make his mark at Old Trafford but for that to happen he needs injury-free periods with regular game time.
No one should really care about the gurning or that he occasionally trips over while trying to make a challenge.
The fact of the matter is that the determination is there and, while he certainly hasn’t lived up to expectations when he was first signed in 2011, to consider him as just a meme is simply disrespectful.
Yet that’s what he is portrayed as. You don’t make 200 appearances for Manchester United if you don’t have any ability.
You can follow Alasdair on Twitter @adjhooper1992