Phil Jones is not Paolo Maldini.
Neither is he Franco Baresi or Fernando Hierro, despite Fabio Capello’s bold claims back in 2013.
Those comparisons were sparked by Jones’ versatility, leading the Italian to boast: “I know something about football and the solution he chooses every time he receives the ball is always the best.”
Now 27, Jones hasn’t become the ‘greatest player in Man United’s history’, as Sir Alex Ferguson predicted after watching the defender secure his first Premier League title seven years ago.
Instead, Jones has become something of a running, flailing, gurning joke.
The 27-year-old didn’t make a single appearance during United’s victorious FA Cup campaign in 2016, while he was used just three times by Jose Mourinho as the club won the Europa League the following season.
Far from being talked about in the same breath as Duncan Edwards, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, Jones is ridiculed whenever he breathes on a football pitch.
Jones’ Twitter account has been inactive since 1 October 2017, which is an indication of the level of abuse he’s subjected to following every increasingly-fleeting appearance in a United shirt.
So what went wrong for the player expected to retire in the pantheon of the defensive gods?
It’s impossible to separate Jones’ career from injury. To date, Jones has only reached 20 Premier League appearances in half of his ten full seasons.
The defender’s first season in a United shirt proved to be his most prolific in terms of first-team action, something Ferguson couldn’t have predicted when he beat half of Europe to secure Jones’ signature in 2011.
Jones has injured his hamstrings, knees, toes, ankles, shins, shoulders, back and head. His troubles range from concussions and sprains to blood clots. If it moves, flexes or contracts then Jones has probably injured it.
His ability as a precociously talented youngster has arguably counted against him. Jones made his Premier League debut aged 18 and, clearly, his body hasn’t been able to withstand the rigours of professional football.
When you lose trust in your body as an athlete, your craft is inevitably going to suffer.
Upon arriving in Manchester, Jones could count on Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as defensive tutors.
Three years later Ferdinand and Vidic had been moved on and Jones, along with Chris Smalling and Jonny Evans, was expected to fill the void.
That was always going to be a tough ask, but it was made all the more difficult by the fact that Jones and Smalling had regularly been played out of position in an attempt to give both defenders first-team minutes.
The versatility Capello and Ferguson lauded in glowing terms came back to haunt Jones.
Neither Jones nor Smalling had honed their defensive nous enough to be able to fill the void at centre-back, especially amidst a traumatic changing of the guards at Old Trafford following Ferguson’s retirement.
In one sense United’s commitment to sticking with the youngsters and ignoring the temptation to spend big on an established international was admirable, but in another it only served to place crippling pressure on the partnership.
One element of Jones’ career that can’t be quantified is luck.
Look at Jordan Henderson. Barring the outbreak of World Ward III, the 29-year-old will lift the Premier League trophy at the end of the season, just as he did the Champions League last year.
In doing so, Henderson will rub shoulders with Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard and write himself into Liverpool’s esteemed history.
But in 2012, while Jones was starting a campaign that would end in Premier League glory, Henderson was being used as a pawn to bring Clint Dempsey to Liverpool.
While luck was on Henderson’s side on that occasion, in that Liverpool didn’t push through a move and Henderson was allowed to stay and fight for his place, it has repeatedly deserted Jones.
Henderson deserves all the plaudits he’s since earned, but injury has denied Jones the chance to do the same on a consistent basis.
This isn’t a piece designed to convince you that Jones and Virgil van Dijk are equal sparring partners.
Few tears will be spilt when Jones leaves Old Trafford, even if he evades the axe long enough to bring up his testimonial year.
But Jones isn’t a social media punching bag. He’s an international-pedigree defender whose career has been decimated by several factors he had no control over.
Everyone needs a break. Even professional footballers.
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