The England U21 team got knocked out of the competition last night but United fans had time enough to see just how great the future prospect of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling playing at centre back together really is. I can’t give these 2 young lads enough praise for the performances they put in during the 3 group fixtures at the tournament but I don’t need to, it was obvious for all to see.
In the game against Spain, Chris Smalling was the stand-out player from the pair as he drove forward with confidence and even had the tenacity to play a big part in the build-up to England’s goal. In his debut season at United, this confidence with the ball at his feet was something that United fans did not expect to see so early on in his United career. He looked every part the world class centre back we expected him to turn into but it was incredible to see such a quick return on what looks like a £10 million steal. In previous times, United always looked frail when either Rio or Vidic was on the sideline but Smalling always filled the void with ease.
Take his performance against Newcastle away in the Premier League campaign. He played a full 90 minutes and managed to complete an impressive 45 out of 51 passes with a fantastic completion rate of 88% but the best note to take from this chalkboard is not how many passes he completed but from where he completed them from. His drive to get forward is only matched by his ability to do so. For a team to possess a centre-back who has the understanding of when he can get forward and help the team is a great characteristic for any player to have and Smalling has it in abundance, something which makes him ever more dangerous when paired with Phil Jones.
If the game against Spain was Chris Smalling‘s man of the match performance in the tournament, then the match against Ukraine was where Phil Jones stood head and shoulders above the rest of the team. Complimented by Smalling’s ability to hold back and let Jones drive forward they were the perfect centre back pairing, never leaving the defence exposed as one always held back. The mazy run that Jones undertakes at 2.20 in the video makes him look nothing like a centre back as he uses quick feet and pace to strip the defence of their dignity before laying off an easy ball out wide to continue the attack. He didn’t get ahead of himself at any point during the game and always looked for the simple ball, the hallmark of a world class player.
Very similar to Smalling, Jones is not a stationary centre back. Even against such daunting opposition as Manchester United, he had the confidence to move around the pitch and even towards the edge of the opponents box, completing 70% of his 20 passes in the 57 minutes he played of the game. He also managed to hold his position when necessary and made key interceptions which helped Blackburn secure a point. His understanding of the game is such that he has already been touted as the future England captain, such is the promise of this young player.
What did I enjoy seeing the most between Jones and Smalling? Ball retention. Time and time again I have seen Ferdinand and Vidic just calmly pass the ball between themselves which lets United get a firm foothold on a match and whenever they could, Jones and Smalling did the same for the England U21 side. To have the confidence to control the game at such a young age speaks volumes for the ability that these 2 have and I wouldn’t be surprised if United won both the FA and Carling Cup next year, as SAF is likely to utilise these competitions in order to give them game time alongside each other.
One more thing to note, however, is the versatility of Jones. The frailty of United’s midfield was evident even before Paul Scholes hung up his boots but United really do need to strengthen it up. At Blackburn, Jones was utilised as a defensive midfielder in quite a few games during the season and he performed very well. SAF will no doubt keep this in consideration and we might see quite a bit of Jones in the Premier League, depending on whether we make any new signings or not. Sure, Jones is not the creative midfielder that United so desperately lack but a utility player is always necessary for a strong squad, especially with O’Shea being linked with a move away this summer. It is a shame that the U21’s couldn’t have performed better because a victorious campaign would have set them in a great position for the off-season but they would have enjoyed getting playing time together and we should see them during United’s American tour in July.