In his two most recent first-team outings for the Premier League leaders, Jones has demonstrated his versatility and these adaptable talents have divided opinion over his most suitable outfield position.
Against Tottenham Hotspur in the Premiership, Jones operated in a holding midfield role and protected the back four admirably. Against Fulham in the FA Cup, he was a rock at the heart of United’s defence.
But it’s still very early days for Jones. For many reasons, there is no rush for him to settle into one role—the pressure of expectation placed on the young Lancastrian is already incredibly high:
He’s English, he’s the third-most expensive teenager in British history and he’s been compared to England defensive mainstay John Terry and even to the sacred Busby Babe midfielder Duncan Edwards.
Using Terry as the benchmark, Sir Alex Ferguson felt compelled to reveal recently that he feels young Jones has even more potential than the former England captain (via The Mirror):
Jones has got more in his locker than John. Terry has got the experience and has become a fantastic central figure at Chelsea. But as a young player, John would be the first to admit he didn’t have the pace of Phil Jones.
Phil is a versatile boy, he can play anywhere. He’s quick, two-footed, reads games well and is competitive. He’s doing very well.
High praise indeed—John Terry has earned 78 caps in his career so far and has been a central figure in a very successful Chelsea side that has returned 11 major honours during his playing years there.
So just which role is the multitalented Phil Jones best suited to?
The new Nemanja Vidic
I’m sure Manchester United fans would have preferred the benchmark chosen by Sir Alex to be their very own club captain Nemanja Vidic.
At 20 years old, the young Vidic was still relatively unknown. He was plying his trade at Serbian outfit Red Star Belgrade, and this serves to illustrate just how quickly Jones has been thrust into the spotlight.
There is no doubt that Jones possesses similar defensive attributes to Vidic: He’s strong, powerful, brave, competitive, commanding in the air and importantly, very communicative—he’s a natural leader.
But his positional awareness is still developing, and this naturally improves with first-team exposure and competitive experience. He has shown early signs of an imposing presence in the box, but again, this is in its infancy.
Many felt Vidic was signed in January 2006 as United’s answer to John Terry, so in light of Sir Alex’s aforementioned comments; the comparison of Jones to the immense Serbian stopper seems like a natural one.
And the timing seems perfectly planned by Sir Alex: Jones may well reach the necessary level of maturity just as Vidic begins the inevitable age-related slip toward retirement.
With Vidic entering his twilight years, there has been much speculation about United bringing in another centre back. However, on recent evidence Sir Alex may already have the answer to his ageing captain.
Why spend the money on Ezequiel Garay or Angelo Ogbonna (via The Mirror) when United has already invested in a ready-made replacement?
Despite all this, some argue that Phil Jones possesses other qualities that may well be wasted if he were restricted to defensive responsibilities alone.
The new Roy Keane
According to Sir Bobby Charlton, Jones reminds him of the legendary United "Babe" and England midfielder Duncan Edwards.
Edwards’ career was tragically cut short at 21 by the catastrophic events of the Munich Air Disaster on February 6, 1958, but he was universally revered as the most exciting talent that Manchester United had ever produced.
Sir Stanley Matthews (still the only player to have been knighted while still playing) once described him as “A rock in a raging sea.”
However, most people reading this article will have never seen Edwards play. So, to use some creative license, we need to fast forward four decades and benchmark Jones against the player Sir Alex has struggled to replace since his controversial departure in 2005.
That man is Roy Keane.
At 20, the ultra-confident, single-minded midfield general had just broken into the first-team setup at Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. It was clear from an early age that the Irish enforcer had a big future.
Keane was capable of turning football matches with sheer will and determination (not to mention the striking of fear into the opposition and his teammates alike). He could grab a game by the scruff of the neck and drag his teammates along with him—a true captain.
Self-confessed understudy to Duncan Edwards and former Manchester United manager Wilf McGuinness champions the Jones and Keane comparison (via Manchester Evening News):
I think Jones is going to be a player in the mould of Keane, Robson and Ince for United. Certainly at this moment, I would play Phil in midfield. When you have the qualities that he has I think it can sometimes be a little bit of a waste when you are restricted to a defensive role.
Perhaps the only thing Jones is missing when compared to Keane is genuine goalscoring ability, but neither Wanyama nor Strootman possess this quality either.
So Jones has the attributes to fulfil either role or even continue to slot into both.
Critics may argue that the danger with such a versatile player is that he becomes a utility man: proficient in a multitude of roles, but ultimately failing to excel in any single one of them.
I can’t see that happening to Phil Jones. He may have cost Manchester United £16.5 million, but in Jones, Sir Alex may well have signed two players for the price of one.
Should Jones’ future be in defence or midfield? Does he have the potential to emulate Vidic or Keane or both? Give me your thoughts below or hit me up on Twitter @jonathanbeever.