With Eric Bailly unavailable to Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho for January due to his participation at the Africa Cup of Nations, the Portuguese manager will be left short of defensive options. Prior to the Ivorian’s injury issues, he was a mainstay at the heart of the United defence and there were concerns that the team would crumble, to an extent, during his absence, such has been his impact in England. Yet, two players who were expected to be phased out following Mourinho’s appointment last summer have steadied the United ship, at least at the back anyway.
A 2-0 win over West Ham was the ninth Premier League game Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo have started together at centre-back for United this season. Of those nine, United have won six and have conceded just six goals in that run. Their first start of the campaign alongside one another came in the 3-1 win at Swansea and since then, United are unbeaten in England’s top tier as they maintain their pursuit for a top-4 finish. What’s all the more impressive is how they have quickly turned their fortunes around to convince Mourinho they warrant a starting spot.
When Mourinho took charge, many anticipated that Jones and Rojo would be among the first to be sold on in order to raise funds to strengthen elsewhere. United were linked with a host of centre-backs, even after signing Bailly, which only heightened suspicions that the defenders would be allowed to depart for pastures new. However, there’s a foundation in place to now argue that the pair are undroppable from the current XI. Jones in particular will feel now is as good a time as ever to establish himself as a first team regular at Old Trafford.
A succession of injury problems coupled with unnecessary pressure placed on him from a young age - “Jones, arguably the way he is looking, could be our best ever player,” former United boss Sir Alex Ferguson said of him in 2013 - hindered his progress, but at present the team are more solid with him at the back. They concede an average of 0.67 goals per game with him starting compared to 1.18 without him. That rings true for Rojo, with United shipping 1.3 goals per league match without him starting compared to just 0.6 goals per game when he features from the off.
Rojo was signed following a solid defensive showing for Argentina at the 2014 World Cup, yet a lack of consistent game time at either centre-back or left-back left his career at a crossroads. Louis van Gaal’s indifferent reign at Old Trafford also stunted Rojo’s chances of consolidating a regular first team spot and it seemed more than likely that Mourinho would cash in on the feisty Argentine. Granted, there are two occasions where the defender could have been red carded for reckless tackles, but alongside Jones, he’s impressing.
The proactive approach to defending from the pair has proven a boost to United, with Jones ranking top for clearances per game (8.3) and Rojo second (7.5) of all players for the club. Evidently they’re in the right place at the right time to alleviate pressure on David De Gea’s goal, which has only helped United in their pursuit of a Champions League return. It may not be the most cultured approach to defending but as the team’s good form has proven, it’s certainly an effective way to readily get the ball as far away from the goal as possible.
That being said, Jones (43.2) and Rojo (46.1) rank highly for passes per game of all United players this season. United top the pass success rate table in the Premier League this term (85.1%), with the defensive duo abiding to the demands of manager Mourinho to implement a possession-based approach where the defenders pass out from the back where possible. Their respective pass success rates - 89.2% and 85.7% - rank highly for United and highlight how capable the pair are when it comes to playing the ball out from the back.
They aren’t passing for the sake of passing either, but rather looking to set United on the front foot. This in part is due to Michael Carrick’s return to the fold with the experienced midfielder dropping deeper to receive the ball from the defence to instigate attacks. Here, the 34-year-old can maximise his distribution and vision when he receives the ball from the defence with Jones and Rojo carrying out the duties of bringing Carrick into play effectively.
While it’s a far from perfect centre-back partnership as far as United fans are concerned, Jones and Rojo have done enough to convince Mourinho that he no longer needs to sign a new centre-back this month. Victor Lindelof was strongly linked with a move to Old Trafford from Benfica, yet the form of the aforementioned pair saw United cool their interest in the Sweden star. With Jones and Rojo both solid at heart of the backline at present, there’s no need for Mourinho to tinker with his defence as United continue their push for a Champions League finish.