When Phil Jones transferred to Manchester United in June 2011 for a fee that could eventually be in excess of £20 million, his manager at Blackburn, Steve Kean claimed that United had signed a future England captain.
A Bright Start
Jones started his United career with a flurry of good performances at centre-back.
However, Jones stepped into the breach along with Evans and Smalling. United began the season with a glut of goals and a series of important, memorable wins over some of their closest rivals.
Over the course of his debut season, Jones made 41 appearances for United, even scoring two goals in the process. What was even more impressive about these numbers was that Jones was fielded in a variety of positions by Sir Alex, according to the needs of the team.
His early stint at centre-back was followed by a spell at right-back. In the aftermath of the derby day demolition by Manchester City, Sir Alex decided to shore up his midfield by playing Jones as a defensive midfielder.
In his first season, when getting experience at United was the key, Jones' versatility was a much-desired trait. His willingness to sacrifice for the team and work hard no matter what position he played in reflected the positive attitude of past utility men at United such as Phil Neville, John O'Shea and Park Ji Sung.
It is no wonder that the Old Trafford crowd took the young Englishman to heart as they witnessed this rare combination of skill and selflessness.
However, it is debatable if Jones' versatility may eventually turn into a curse for him, if it goes on for too long. Much like the careers of Neville, O'Shea and Park, he could be shunted around the team, never discovering his one specialist position.
The potential tragedy of the situation though, is that Phil Jones is without doubt more skilled than any of the players I mentioned above. His pace, athleticism, power and drive make for a heady cocktail of footballing skills—a fact that has earned him comparisons with the venerable Duncan Edwards.
Despite his obvious potential, Jones needs experience to make him into the truly great player he can become.
There are a few rough edges in his game, including positioning and passing under pressure. He needs an extended run in the team in the position of his choice to begin improving these parts of his game. Being regarded as the utility man will only harm his own prospects of achieving these improvements.
Current Defensive Situation at United
Jones has endured a difficult start to his sophomore season at Old Trafford. After spending Euro 2012 as a non-playing member of the England squad, he suffered a back injury during preseason. During recovery from the knee injury, he also suffered a torn meniscus that will keep him out for a further couple of months.
With injuries plaguing other key people in defence and with questions being asked about the pace of the defenders who are still fit, the return of Jones has become a critical issue for the Old Trafford club. Jones carries the energy and pace that current United defenders lack a bit (or which Ferdinand has lost slightly with age) and could be the solution to the team's defensive frailties.
It is only to be hoped that Sir Alex comes to the same conclusion and realizes that a specialist Phil Jones at centre-back is what the team needs.