Manager gambles on Jones, knowing time is against him

Capello to start United's young defender in midfield aware he has just three games to work out his best side

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The Independent Football

As so many managers of so many different abilities have before him, Fabio Capello sought reassurance from Sir Alex Ferguson this month.

The England manager wanted to know if Phil Jones was capable of playing in central midfield at international level and whether, on top of that, he was capable of doing so against the world champions Spain.

Capello related the nature of his conversation with Ferguson yesterday as if to prove a point. "He [Jones] was in my mind when I met him [Ferguson] in Manchester [last week for the celebrations for Ferguson's 25th anniversary as United manager]. He [Ferguson] said he could play there. You know, last year he [Jones] played in midfield."

It was instructive that even for a fellow manager such as Capello, who is just four years Ferguson's junior and is one of the few managers alive with a record that even gets close to comparing, the word of the Scot is taken with such solemn assurance. Because, make no mistake about it, playing Jones against the best midfield in the world today is a risk. It is an intriguing, beguiling risk. One that may even turn out to be inspired. But a risk, none the less.

Jones will feature in holding midfield this evening, in all probability alongside Scott Parker, with Frank Lampard just ahead of the two, against what is the greatest international midfield of the modern era. Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta are daunting opposition but Capello, like every international manager, is essentially a man in a hurry. He does not even feel that he can wait until Tuesday and the game against Sweden to give Jones his chance.

When it was put to Capello – not entirely seriously – that he should bear in mind when taking advice on the England team that Ferguson is Scottish, he laughed. But he appeared more amused at the memory of having seen Ferguson wearing a kilt than any suggestion that he might have been given a duff steer from a patriotic Scotsman.

Jones starts today, just his second England cap, in midfield against the world champions. But who are we to laugh at Capello's eccentricities when he has to endure so many of ours? This week the England manager has already seen his team at the centre of a row over poppies, his captain is the subject of a police investigation and the announcement of the team hotel for Euro 2012 basically came down to the question of where the WAGs would be staying.

Compared to all that, the fact that Capello's own son would be absent-minded enough to schedule his wedding for an international weekend seems relatively mild in comparison.

In a nutshell, Capello said yesterday that he cannot afford to treat today's game as if it is a match that must be won at the cost of trying out new players and different formations. He has a limited number of opportunities to prepare for Euro 2012 – and the three games without Wayne Rooney (pending an appeal) – and there is no time to waste.

It was with a degree of exasperation that Capello explained his position. "Guys, for me, these are important games [in which] to see the value of the players I have to select. These are difficult games. Spain and Sweden have different styles, completely different styles, and then the Dutch to come [in March].

"I want to understand what will happen with the players I select when we go to play the really important games at the Euros. Those matches at the Euros will be more difficult. So I need to know the value of the players. Also, these three games, we will play at home with the pressure. Here, the pressure is more than away from home. For this reason, you can understand the value of the players [better] here, than away."

In the case of Jones, Capello was effusive in his praise, even mentioning Franco Baresi in the same sentence as the 19-year-old. To clarify that point he said that Baresi, the old defender who was a mainstay of his first Milan team, was a better defender than Jones; but Jones the better midfielder.

As for the United teenager, Capello said: "He can play right-back, he can play centre-back, he can play, for me, as a midfielder because he's really a fantastic player. But I know him as a right-back, where he's really good. He played really well against Montenegro. I saw him twice as a central defender, at centre-back. I remember him as a central midfielder. I want to see him there in a really important game against Spain.

"I think he's got a lot of qualities, really good qualities. His potential is the top. The top. You need quality to be able to do that. When he goes forward, when he reaches the last metres near the box, his passing is really good. He can shoot. He can [get close to] the goal. I think so."

Without Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Jack Wilshere and Rio Ferdinand there is little more that Capello can do but try to make some changes and put a brave face on it if things work out badly today. There is much to be said in playing Jones – what would another cap for Gareth Barry add to Capello's understanding of this team? – the only real fear being that if it is a bad experience it may set the player back.

Otherwise, this is a team that will probably spend much of the game defending in a 4-5-1 formation. That leaves Capello with a dilemma over his striker. Darren Bent is more likely to seize on a half-chance that earns his team a goal but Danny Welbeck is a more obvious candidate to occupy the Spain defence. James Milner's form should earn him a start on the left with Theo Walcott on the opposite wing.

If anything, Jones's selection shows that England have, to some degree, moved on from the team that was eliminated by Germany in South Africa in July last year. Then the teenager would scarcely have elicited a flicker of recognition from Capello. Today he is starting against a team for whom the Italian can barely conceal his admiration.

Asked whether he was doing the right thing, Capello held his ground. "It's my job, guys. It's my job," he said. "I have no fear. Nothing. No fear. Yes, I think the team that will play [today] will be really, really, good." He sounded like a man who had weighed up the benefits of playing it safe and had decided, this time at least, to go for broke.

Defenders in midfield a good idea?

Is Fabio Capello right to play defender Phil Jones in midfield? Here are some cautionary tales:

Gareth Southgate

A great man-manager but never regarded as a master tactician, Kevin Keegan made a mistake in deploying Southgate in the holding role in the 2002 World Cup qualifier against Germany in the final game at the old Wembley in October 2000. It was far from Southgate's finest display, and eventually he was moved back into a safer central defensive position. England lost 1-0 thanks to Dietmar Hamann's free-kick, and Keegan resigned after the game.

Jamie Carragher

Was first used in midfield by care-taker manager Peter Taylor in the 1-0 friendly defeat in Italy in November 2000, coming on for Nicky Butt. He played in the holding role for Sven Goran Eriksson in the 3-1 World Cup warm-up win over Hungary in 2006. His performance was competent enough but he was switched to right-back for the second half.

Ledley King

Made his first England midfield performance coming on as a substitute for Paul Scholes in the 70th minute in the 4-2 group stage win over Croatia in Euro 2004. He went on to play the holding role excellently in a 2-1 World Cup qualifying win against Poland in 2005, starting in a 4-1-3-2 formation. However, he struggled a month later tracking the runs of Juan Riquelme in the 3-2 friendly win over Argentina. 

Tom Sweetman