Manchester United took a giant step towards Europa League glory this season with a commanding 3-0 victory over Saint-Etienne in the first leg of their last 32 clash on Thursday.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic netted a hat-trick at Old Trafford to secure a comfortable win for Jose Mourinho’s men, who will go to France next week in a bid to get the job done and advance into the last 16.
Of course, victory in the competition would qualify United for next season’s Champions League, which is something they could miss out on in terms of their Premier League finish.
Mourinho’s men are sixth in the division having won 13 of their 25 league games this term, although they are only two points behind fourth place Arsenal with 13 games of the campaign remaining.
An unbeaten run since October has helped the Red Devils close the gap on the top sides after a stuttering start to the season, and they have also been helped by a much-improved defence which has conceded only 21 goals this season, three fewer than the lowest conceders Chelsea and Tottenham.
Clearly, United have been pretty solid at the back this term, although who has been their best defender?
Well, purely in terms of defensive ability, Phil Jones has been a revelation in the United backline this season.
Antonio Valencia deserves great credit for stepping in at right-back and making the spot his own this season, and has even been a genuine threat going forward, yet England international Jones didn’t appear once for the club until injuries savaged the back four, allowing the centre-back to deputise in the win over Swansea back in November.
Since then, he has been a regular feature in the side. And it’s not difficult to see why.
The 24-year-old averages more clearances per game than any of his centre-back rivals (8.2), and is aerially more dominant than the likes of Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo, winning on average 3 aerial duels a game, equating to 73%, in comparison to Rojo’s 2.5 and Bailly’s 1.4.
With no yellow cards and only 0.4 fouls per game, way down on every other United defender this term, Jones is proving a trustworthy and dependable option at the back, and although Ivorian international Bailly tackles more and makes more interceptions, he is down on Jones in terms of clearances and blocks (5.4 clearances to Jones’ 8.2, and 0.4 blocks to Jones’ 0.8).
For a player many felt wouldn’t be near the United first team this season, 24-year-old Jones has excelled at the back and, although the Red Devils have several good defenders, emphasised by the good figures across the board for Rojo, Smalling, Bailly, and Valencia, Jones is without doubt the most reliable and the most consistent.