When José Mourinho first took the helm at Manchester United last summer wild transfer speculation greeted the Portuguese’s arrival. The summer promised a raft of new players, with many more on the way out in another window of change at Old Trafford. The usual suspects were prepared for exit, with Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones among those singled out for special attention. Rojo’ s apparent poor quality and Jones’ injury record made exit all the more likely. Somehow, it hasn’t worked out like that.
As is often the case, speculation amounted to nothing. Some of the squad’s fringe players have done well this season. Daley Blind has enjoyed game time in the centre and at left-back, while Juan Mata has been in some of the best form of his career. Even Marouane Fellaini is a regularly starter. Yet, nothing has stunned supporters more than Rojo and Jones’ apparent solidity as centre back partners.
Consistency in selection helps defensive organisation above all. In Mourinho’s first stint at Chelsea the Portuguese manager relied on the partnership of John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho at the back. Chelsea went on to win back-to-back Premier League titles, while Mourinho went with Lúcio and Wálter Samuel with similar success at Inter. It was Pepe and Sergio Ramos at Real Madrid, while United’s Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić is hailed as one of the best defensive pairings of all time.
Yet, Mourinho’s new team has enjoyed an inconsistent first half of the Premier League, due in part to the new managers’ process of rationalizing the squad he inherited. Eric Bailly and Blind was the preferred pairing at the beginning of the season, with Chris Smalling sidelined through injury. That partnership lasted until the Manchester Derby, when Blind’s fatal misjudgment enabled Kevin De Bruyne to score City’s opening goal. Blind was quickly dropped for the fit again Smalling.
When Blind and Smiling first combined this season United conceded three away to Watford, before the pair contributed to a solid performance at Anfield, where the Reds stopped free-scoring Liverpool. That level of performance didn’t last long, with United shipping four at Chelsea. Smalling contributed something to each.
Bailly’s injury in November called for yet another reshuffle, enabling Rojo to come into the side for the first time against Burnley, with Jones joining him when United travelled to Swansea City. Since that visit to the Liberty Stadium on 6 November, Rojo and Jones have held down the centre back positions in what has been United’s most consistent run of the season to date. In the seven league games that Rojo and Jones have started United has conceded just five goals. By contrast the team conceded 11 in the previous seven.
Rojo was acquired by Louis van Gaal after the defender helped Argentina reach the World Cup final in 2014. The La Plata-born player was used primarily on the left side of Argentina’s four man defence, but had been a mainstay at centre back for former club Sporting. He enjoyed a solid first season at the club, impressing in the centre before suffering a nasty shoulder injury in the Manchester Derby. When Rojo returned he was deployed both on the left and the centre without holding down a solid position, before suffering a dismal final campaign under Van Gaal.
The presumption that Rojo would be sold last summer was widespread. Rojo made two appearances at left-back, before Mourinho concluded, much like everybody else, that the defender is not technically accomplished enough to play the attacking role the manager has envisioned for his wing backs. On the other flank Antonio Valencia’s pace, strength and ability to beat his opponent, has served United well – a model for what Mourinho is after.
Rojo excels in an old-fashioned interpretation of the centre half role. Imperious in the air and strong in a tackle, the often criticized defender is good at fundamental defensive basics. In the last round of fixtures, Rojo won 100 per cent of the aerial duels and every tackle against Salomon Rondon – and the Venezuelan is never easily outmuscled.
Phil Jones has suffered a similarly mixed time at United. While Sir Alex Ferguson once declared that “Jones may be one of the best players we have ever had,” it was far too soon. The Scot had something of a point though. Jones’ career has been interrupted too often through injury, but the latent talent is there, and at 24 there is still a chance the player can fulfil his potential. Like Rojo, Jones understands the fundamentals of defending.
The duo’s run in the first team has also precipitated a notable change in United’s style of play. While the hangover from Van Gaal’s love of possession was understandable, Rojo and Jones’ deployment underpins a significant difference in the way the Reds defend and restart play from the back. During the early season fixture with Manchester City, for example, Bailly and Blind made a total of nine clearances in the 90 minutes. In United’s recent game against the far less threatening West Bromwich Albion, Rojo and Jones made 22 clearances.
It’s a pattern in many of the games the pair started. The contrast is important and reflects United’s greater willingness to sacrifice possession, as long as it is far away from the Reds’ penalty area. It is also noticeable how much more Mourinho’s side is playing on the counter-attack, with Zlatan Ibrahimović pivotal in holding up the ball for others to join the attack.
Both Rojo and Jones have been consistently praised by the manager, with the former having featured in eight successive Premier League games, and the latter in six.The Argentina international, though, has been criticised in recent weeks due to his reckless two-footed challenges against Everton and Crystal Palace.A red card was escaped, perhaps fortunately, on each occasion – and while Rojo has been widely criticised for the lunges, Mourinho has continued to hail his form.
In one sense, with Bailly off to the African Cup of Nations and Smalling struggling for fitness, Rojo and Jones represent the ghosts of Christmas present and future. After all, the pair has come up against high-class opponents in Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Harry Kane, Christian Benteke and Rondon in their run of fixtures together. None of the aforementioned forwards scored against United. So much for those summer predictions.