One with a face as mocked as the other’s toast-making skills, Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo have been playing so blisteringly competently recently that they’ve started to receive compliments. However, trust once placed in a footballer can be quickly betrayed.
A good midfield in front of them can make a centre-back look deceptively good (or vice versa), and it should be noted that Jones and Rojo have rarely been meaningfully tested during their recent spell.
An actual swan, let alone eleven of them, would put up more of a fight than current Swansea; Arsenal were well below their best; West Ham have been so unexpectedly poor this season that they were called ‘Blunt Hammers’ on Match of the Day last night, despite the fact that being blunt is literally what hammers are meant to be; Everton have been stuttering after a good start (albeit, bar Spurs, a fairly easy one).
Spurs themselves were also off their best, and are more of an efficient machine than a quick-firing armoury of hole-creating defence-tearing bazookas anyway; Pardew can’t teach his Palace side an effectively structured attack if it punched Benteke in the face and insisted the ball was played on the ground; and West Brom, though high in the table, have overachieved a little results-wise and, well, it’s West Brom.
This isn’t to say that it’s been an easy ride. United have been vulnerable in transition, most notably against Everton and in the first half hour against Arsenal, and West Brom’s width and physicality arguably made RoJones (pronounce that how you will) look the most ragged since they’ve been in the side this season.
In fact, West Brom’s strength in that game were the opposite of what made Spurs so easy for United to handle. With little width, United’s full-backs were able to push a little high when defending and join Carrick in a defensive-midfield line, squeezing in a little bit to stop Spurs using the halfspaces. Carrick and Darmian in particular formed a good duo in that left-centre strip of the pitch, and Sissoko’s entrance into the game in the second half caused problems precisely because it forced United to defend more individually down that side, rather than in an effective structure.
The Herrera-Carrick-Pogba dynamic in central midfield has undeniably helped, Carrick a wonderful player both defensively and in switching the play away from pressure, helping to spark attacks. Herrera has the energy and the will to make up, when needed, for Carrick’s legs and Pogba’s more advanced position. Even so, the three of them are generally on hand quickly to swarm and snuff an opposition attacking midfielder once one of them has successfully held them up a bit.
The reservations about Carrick, and possibly why he didn’t feature regularly sooner, are about how much you can play a 35-year old in central midfield without his presence eventually becoming a liability. So far, he hasn’t looked creaking at all, pushing to get back into position when opponents manage to break, but the question and the fear is for how long that can be kept up, and for who replaces him when it can’t.
These are the same concerns about Ibrahimovic, although in his position it may be easier to carry him in terms of legwork in order to keep him fit. The attack needs to be mentioned too here, even in a discussion of RoJones, because it’s the good results gained with them in the side which is partially driving the narrative around them.
United have won 15 points in 7 games with them as the central defensive duo, but these have been games of fine margins, the Swansea game aside. Three 1-1 draws, 1 goal wins over Tottenham and Crystal Palace, and a 2-0 win over West Brom which was hardly a walkover – the results switch hasn’t come about because of a more free-flowing attack. Rather, the breaks that weren’t going United’s way have started to.
They’ve actually taken fewer shots in the RoJones era than the 10 previous league games, though the vast majority of these have been ones which were off target – suggesting that United have simply been cutting out pointless punts from distance.
Their conversion rates have gone up though. For all shots, the rise has been from 7.18% (well below the general average of 10%) to 12.36%. The conversion of their shots on target has gone up from just over 22% (again, well below the league average of around 33%) to a much more normal 32%. All those missed chances that were happening in Zlatan’s barren spell have, well, stopped.
Take his first goal against West Brom. On another day, Jesse Lingard might hook that cross well off target, or just behind Ibrahimovic and forcing him to contort himself just to get a weak effort away. Or perhaps Zlatan would turn his neck just slightly too much and the ball would skim wide, or his header would be a few inches to the right and Foster would manage to scramble across to save it. Every now and then, these things happen – it was just that for a run of games, coincidentally pre-RoJones, these things were happening more often than every now and then.
The parts of Jones and Rojo’s games, which before now had given United fans so many heart palpitations, are still there. As we’ve all seen, Rojo is prone to some less than ideal rash decisions, which include (but are not exclusively tied to) red-card-deserving two-footed tackles.
Outside the potential ankle-breakers, he still tries to pinch a ball away from a striker by going around three sides of a square, leading to either a foul or being easily rolled. Jones is still very limited on the ball, and Rojo, while technically better, still offers little in build up; they both still have deficiencies in the air; Jones still has a centre of gravity problem. They may still have other problems too, but these are only the ones that have been evident during their recent well-protected stint.
Part of why they’re well protected is that United are doing well at defending higher up the pitch. Their average PPDA (Passes allowed Per Defensive Action) has dropped from a medium-to-high intensity level 9.06 to a definitely-high intensity level 7.66; the proportion of tackles and interceptions made in their defensive third has dropped from 40% to just below 34%.
In fairness to RoJones, they undoubtedly have qualities and they’ve performed well within the role and requirements of recent games. Competent is more or less all that they’ve needed to be, and it’s competent that they’ve been. They are better than the average Premier League centre-back in terms of positioning and awareness, and probably (considering the age of some of them) physical fitness as well. Even if they’re no Stones or Hummels in terms of contributing to the side’s build-up, their technique is good and would save them from scrapes more often and more reliably than the average Premier League CB too.
Rojo can be a useful communicator as well – in the game against Spurs he helped to direct a probably-tiring Carrick through more mentally taxing later periods of the match. With opponents milling between the lines in the blind side of the central midfielders, some help from teammates (which quieter centre-backs might not give) can be genuinely key in stopping said centre-backs from having to do any physical work at all.
United, finally, look like they’ve started to click. They’ve started to get the breaks in attack again, and their central midfield has worked very well in defence. They’ve helped to shelter Jones and Rojo a lot, and while this is a good thing for the team and their fans it also means that, perhaps, they should go a little easier on the assessment of the pair’s overall quality.