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Outside The Box: Phil Jones's problems not all his own fault

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Manchester United defender Phil Jones is not a set-piece specialist or creative libero. Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Manchester United defender Phil Jones is not a set-piece specialist or creative libero. Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Getty Images

Manchester United defender Phil Jones is not a set-piece specialist or creative libero. Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

I once scored a few free-kicks in training past a half-decent goalkeeper and earned the chance to do it in a match situation.

The following Saturday, a chance presented itself 20 yards from goal with a real-life wall, a referee's whistle and a little bit of curiosity from team-mates.

At that point, I stepped up, struck the ball somewhere near my heel, watched as it hit an opponent softly in the navel, I then barrelled into the subsequent 50-50 challenge and won a throw-in for the team. The Beckham-moment, sadly, was over.

Perhaps that's why the plight of Phil Jones on Friday night struck a chord when a player, whose best position is generally regarded to be centre-back, struggled so badly to take set-pieces.

It's difficult to picture Gary Cahill, Laurent Koscielny, Mangala or Sakho whipping in crosses for any of United's competitors, even if they are supposed to be the more creative member of their centre-back partnership.

Apart from anything else, all of them, and Jones, are better served trying to get on the end of crosses rather than being the ones creating them .

There must have been a training session at some point in Carrington where Jones's deliveries found a team-mate and, Louis van Gaal, being the tactical genius that he is, decided that he should be the one to take them in a match situation rather than the galaxy of attacking talent on which he has spent tens of millions.

On Friday, the areas which several of his set-pieces arrived into weren't actually that bad but, in keeping with the rest of the night, United's players moved with the sort of speed and enthusiasm you'd expect from millionaires spending their Friday night outside on a cold, miserable night in Cambridge.

For reasons best known to himself, Van Gaal has decided, that among his galaxy of attacking players, Jones is the man who can best deliver a dead ball and for a player who seems to be struggling for confidence, it has provided his detractors with a rather decent stick with which to beat him.

The comparisons between Jones and Duncan Edwards have proved to be ludicrous, as they were always going to be, yet Van Gaal has decided to take a decent centre-back and ask him to be both his team's set-piece expert and starting points for attacks, despite his obvious discomfort at being in possession.

At one point in the second half on Friday, Jones received the ball in his own penalty area, touched the ball 12 consecutive times to reach the halfway line but then turned and, with his 13th touch, played the ball backwards.

Later in the half, Ander Herrara, purportedly a creative midfielder, had five yards of space 25 yards from goal when he received the ball, but rather than try to create something he took the safe option of a pass back to Jones who, with little composure and even fewer options, sliced a shot wide with his right foot.

The shot looked horrendous, as did most of Jones' moments in possession, but part of good management is playing to a player's strengths or at least demanding that team-mates - like midfielders wanting to get on the ball - help a player out with his weaknesses.

For Jones' sake, you would hope that Van Gaal would demand to know why Herrara passed both the ball and the buck in that situation or why, other than Michael Carrick, nobody seems to give United's defenders an option when they are in possession.

In the rush to slaughter Jones for his inadequacies at tasks most centre-backs aren't asked to perform was the closest moment that United came to going out of the competition which was averted by, of all people, Jones.

With six minutes remaining, Ryan Donaldson whipped a cross from the right and Jones stretched to meet it.

Given the night he had endured, it looked certain he'd get too firm a contact and divert it into his own net. Had he not been firm enough, there was Cambridge player behind him waiting on the chance to be a hero.

Instead, he nodded it out for a corner in a moment that won't make the end-of-game highlights or produce reams of hilarious Twitter banter but which, nevertheless, kept United in the Cup.

It was the sort of thing that a defender like Jones is - rather than a set-piece specialist or creative libero that he isn't - could use to show the manager what he can do.

Van Gaal, however, appears determined to give him jobs that he can't.

 

Tweets of the week

Monday

Jack Grealish (@JackGrealish1): Can't wait to be happy playing football again - We think we know what he meant, but it didn't stop the Aston Villa youngster getting in hot water and fined.

Tuesday

Daniel Sturridge (@D_Sturridge): Team looked class tonight!! - A rare time during the season that this could be tweeted by the Liverpool striker. He might be timing his return well.

Wednesday

Sergio Aguero (@aguerosergiokun): Gaining more field experience helps to bring me back to speed. Thanks to the folks in Al Ain for the welcome! - The Manchester City striker sounds like he's trying a little too hard to be positive about a midweek trip to the Middle East.

Thursday

Peter Crouch (@petercrouch): Perhaps I shouldn't stand next to jockeys - The Stoke striker looks to be about half a length taller.

Friday

Carlton Cole (@CarltonCole1): Good Morning! Have a SUPER day!! - It was 9.0 when the West Ham striker posted this pic, but it's hard to imagine his day could get any better.

Saturday

Andy Halliday (@Andy_Halliday): Am I gonna wake up soon ? Words don't come close, best feeling i've ever had! Football is crazy - The Bradford City player sums up a stunning day of FA Cup action.

Sunday

Shane Long (@ShaneLong7): Thanks for all the tweets guys. Feeling alot better today and am on the mend. Here's to a speedy recovery - After all of his efforts to help Southampton through to the fourth round, the Ireland striker must be wondering why he bothered.

 

The question nobody asked

How many times has Eden Hazard been fouled since arriving in the Premier League?

The Chelsea star is well on his way to retaining his title as the Premier League's most fouled player, having already had 65 fouls given in his favour this season.

The Belgian leads a couple of other tricksters in Raheem Sterling (56) and Alexis Sanchez (45), while, perhaps surprisingly, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Steven Naismith (both 43) make up the top five.

Hazard was comfortably out in front in last season's Premier League rankings, having caused the referee to blow his whistle 89 times, 10 more than Robert Snodgrass and 13 more than Adam Lallana.

In his first season, Hazard made it into the top five with 79 fouls against him - 10 behind that season's leader Shaun Maloney - meaning that, over the course of two-and-a-half seasons, and 90 games, Hazard has been fouled 233 times.

 

The bet you should have done

Middlesbrough to beat Manchester City, 12/1

Even this column would struggle to justify picking Bradford to beat Chelsea at 20/1 but, with City having taken a midweek break to the Middle East, they didn't seem to be fully focused on Boro.

The visitors are a decent team with the excellent Patrick Bamford up front and while City managed to scrape past Sheffield Wednesday in the last round, they didn't get away with it this time.

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