England manager Fabio Capello has revealed that he is willing to give Manchester United’s youngster Phil Jones his senior England bow in tomorrow evening’s match against Montenegro.
Nevertheless, my feelings – for what they’re worth – are ones of joy at his inclusion, but also caution.
Not caution for having Jones – described by Sam Allardyce, his former Blackburn Rovers manager as a “Rolls-Royce” – start in Podgorica. Not at all – His tenacity, forward-thinking and excellent reading of the game having helped to show his vast potential in the start to his Manchester United career. But instead caution to the position that the England manager chooses Jones to start tomorrow night, and who plays alongside him.
Last month in Bulgaria, England went with Gary Cahill alongside John Terry at centre-back, with Chris Smalling – like Jones, exemplary in United’s excellent start to the season – at full-back. They defended very well, looking a smart unit, completed by Ashley Cole at left-back and goalkeeper Joe Hart, with Gareth Barry and Scott Parker patrolling in front.
However, Smalling is unfortunately absent for the latest Euro 2012 qualifier through injury. Cahill is in the midst of a professional crisis, with his club side Bolton Wanderers having lost six straight Premier League matches, conceding goals galore along the way. Therefore, a defence that kept two clean sheets will be changed, albeit two changes are expected rather than just the one forced through necessity
The talk has been that Phil Jagielka, the Everton central defender, will be pushed into international duty at right-back, where he has not looked comfortable and has been exposed previously. It is felt that the players experience and greater defensive diligence – in contrast with Jones, Spurs, uncapped Dani-Alves-like flyer, Kyle Walker and Manchester City’s Micah Richards, who all offer more attacking thrust but less defensive security – will be needed against Montenegro’s most threatening forward, the Juventus striker Mirko Vucinic, who tends to drift to the left-hand side to do his most incisive work.
Nonetheless, a starting place at centre-back is likely for Jones, Capello’s feelings that the United defender will be granted greater protection playing in a central pocket with Jagielka to his right, the Chelsea duo of Terry and Cole to his left, and Spurs midfielder Parker sweeping up in front of him.
However, once again this falls down to Capello and his own personal failings, of being too defensively-minded for his own good. We saw it in the World Cup, selecting David James and Robert Green ahead of Hart in goal, and have seen it in his previous inclinations to not select youth over experience.
And what of Jagielka? If he plays full-back, doesn’t have the greatest game and gets slated for looking out of his depth in what isn’t his favoured, nor best, position, then what does that say to his standing within the England set-up?
Offering Jones the added protection in a central area would mean the elder statesmen alongside him can guide him throughout the match. No question.
But to do so would be to reign in his attacking capabilities, in what is likely to be a hostile environment, when perhaps to play him at right-back with Jagielka (or Cahill) inside, would be to indulge those qualities and to show more attacking intent. It would allow Jones to play his part some 10-15 yards further forward, whilst still allowing for defensive security.
I’m not saying for a second that right-back is Jones best position. In fact, I believe he could be the kind of oustanding central defender that England haven’t had since the legendary Bobby Moore, one who can be as effective coming out of defence and starting attacks as he is stopping them. But on this particular occasion, both from a positive and negative point of view, it makes the most sense.
Jones at right-back would be able to pose Montenegro questions and make them think about defending against him. He is unquestionably better in possession than Jagielka. And at this time, Jagielka is the safer defender. In the end, it could be that reversing the roles in which they appear to be about to be employed, would have more benefits for both players, their manager and their country.