Neil Humphreys: Keeping down with the Jones
Poor defender sums up United's shocking decline
Poor Phil Jones is the unwitting face of Manchester United. He's awkward, clumsy and a reliable source for easy laughs.
He's everything that the Red Devils have become and everything that Liverpool have moved away from.
When the two sides meet at Anfield on Sunday, the contrast in defensive quality will be alarming.
Virgil van Dijk produces masterclasses in the art of ball recovery and distribution. Jones produces funny memes.
Life is cruel. But a footballer's life can be utterly wretched, a point thoroughly underscored by the viral photos of Jones in the last 24 hours.
The centre-back was seen gurning again, this time against Valencia in United's 2-1 loss in the Champions League yesterday morning (Singapore time).
Gurning is a bizarre British tradition of pulling rubbery faces to titillate audiences. Gurning isn't easy, but Jones does it every time he makes a tackle.
On this occasion, he was caught on camera challenging Michy Batshuayi and the on-loan Valencia forward mocked the defender on Twitter.
Even Chelsea rejects are taking potshots at United these days.
But Jones' face-pulling and clanger-dropping - he was at fault for both Valencia goals - have come to define his side's baffling inconsistency. Their successes belong in a different era, to a different manager.
Both look a step out of time.
Naturally, Jones bore the brunt of the online sarcasm. The jokes were as obvious as they were relentless.
Jones was the first United player to score a Champions League own goal since Jones in November 2011. Jones was the worst United defender since Jones and so forth. The jibes were painful because they were dipped in truth.
In some respects, Jones finds himself punished for the crimes of others. Jose Mourinho and his partner-in-calamity, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, have failed to sign superior defenders.
Sir Alex Ferguson signed a robust Jones in 2011 and essentially deployed him in various utility roles, depending on the opposition or state of United's dressing room.
But the centre-back cum defensive midfielder was hardly expected to lead the back four almost eight years after arriving at the club.
Jones' shortcomings were apparent for all to see against Valencia and his pivotal role in United's defeat certainly isn't disputed.
His dreadful clearance, straight to Carlos Soler, presented Valencia with their opener and his surreal own goal, slipping the ball past the advancing Sergio Romero, defied belief.
A couple of tin cans tied to a piece of string will achieve more effective communication than that witnessed between Romero and Jones, who at least showed Romelu Lukaku how to guide a ball between the posts.
But Jones is also paying a heavy price for the failings of those above his pay grade.
Mourinho and Woodward are relying on the remnants of a fallen dynasty. Three of United's back four were signed before Mourinho's arrival.
Inevitably, United's manager ran through his list of absentees, in defence of his inept defence, once again giving the impression that the world's biggest football club is the only one with injury problems.
Half a billion dollars just doesn't buy defensive cover any more.
Mourinho also insulted his players, as expected. He learnt nothing from the defeat, he insisted, inferring that Jones usually produces a couple of mistakes per game.
But Mourinho's upcoming opponents would've learnt plenty. Liverpool would've learnt, and appreciated, the incalculable value of reinforcing a haphazard centre-back.
Like United, the Reds recently struggled with an inconsistent performer at the heart of their defence. But Dejan Lovren wasn't thrown to the wolves. He was supported with new signings instead. Joel Matip and van Dijk bolstered the ranks. Joe Gomez was developed.
One vulnerable centre-back became part of a vastly improved gang of four (and Lovren's performances improved as a result).
Interestingly, Liverpool face a defensive crisis of their own ahead of United's visit. Matip picked up a shoulder injury in midweek and joins Gomez on the sidelines.
But manager Juergen Klopp still has Lovren and van Dijk through the Christmas period. The Reds' choices are limited, but their options are still better than Jones and Eric Bailly.
A likeable, committed campaigner, Jones doesn't deserve to be a poignant symbol for all that is wrong at his stagnating club. He can hardly be blamed for boardroom incompetence or the loss of mojo in the dugout.
Still, the memes about his own goal and "assist" against Valencia are fitting metaphors for United.
Their blunders are always good for a giggle because it's hard to take them seriously any more.
VALENCIA: Domenech, Piccini, Vezo, Diakhaby, Lato (Garay 51), Soler, Parejo, Kondogbia, Cheryshev (Torres 66), Batshuayi, Mina (Rodrigo 68)
MAN UNITED: Romero, Valencia, Jones, Bailly, Rojo (Young 46), Fellaini, Pogba, Pereira, Mata, Fred (Rashford 57), Lukaku (Lingard 69)
Phil Jones is the first Manchester United player to score an own goal during a Champions League match since he did the same against Benfica seven years ago in November 2011.
EPL teams' possible last-16 opponents
GROUP * WINNERS * RUNNERS-UP
A * B. Dortmund * A. Madrid
B * Barcelona * Tottenham
C * PSG * Liverpool
D * Porto * Schalke
E * Bayern Munich * Ajax
F * Man City * Lyon
G * Real Madrid * AS Roma
H * Juventus * Man United
EPL TEAMS' POSSIBLE LAST-16 OPPONENTS
* Atletico Madrid, Schalke 04, Ajax Amsterdam, AS Roma
* Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Porto, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid
* Dortmund, Barcelona, Porto, Bayern, Real, Juventus
* Dortmund, PSG, Porto, Bayern, Real , Juventus
Teams from the same group or country cannot be drawn to meet in the Round of 16. The draw takes place at 7pm on Monday.