Another season of uncertainty for Phil Jones

Posted by Mark Payne

Steve Bardens/Getty ImagesWith a back four that appears fairly well set, the versatile Phil Jones would be best served playing as a defensive midfielder for United.

Phil Jones has been lauded as one of the great talents of the current Manchester United squad. In 2011-12, his first season at Old Trafford, Sir Bobby Charlton was even bold enough to compare Jones to Duncan Edwards, but the Preston-born defender had less impact in 2012-13 and now faces a pivotal season at United. Despite starting against Swansea over the weekend, it remains to be seen if Jones can hold down a first-team place.

The first problem Jones faces is that United are overstocked in defence. Although United needed to play Michael Carrick at centre-back this time last year, the club currently have plenty of personnel in that department.

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Crucially, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic are both fit and looked impressive over the weekend. Jones is on the record as saying centre-back is his preferred position, but the Rio-Vidic axis is unbreakable if both are fit. If one of them isn't, Ferguson tended to prefer using Johnny Evans as the backup; new United manager David Moyes may do the same.

Against Swansea, Jones was deployed at right-back and enjoyed a solid game, including a decent chance as he volleyed a loose ball during the first half. However, this was only in place of the injured Rafael, who has been injured since the Community Shield. Rafael has certainly done enough to make the right-back position his own in the past two years and can expect to reclaim it when he regains fitness. In addition to this, Jones faces competition from Chris Smalling in this part of the pitch.

United seem to be collecting left-backs at the moment, too. Patrice Evra played more matches than anybody else except Carrick last season. As backup, there is Alexander Buttner and Fabio, back from a loan spell at QPR. In addition, United are waving 12 million pounds at Everton for Leighton Baines to come and join the party. The chances of Jones getting a game at left-back therefore appear slim.

In Jones' first season at United, he played 42 games in all competitions. For a 19-year-old, that is stupendous, and only five players at the club took the field on more occasions in 2011-12. That season he was used as a utility man, taking advantage of John O'Shea's defection to Sunderland perhaps, and was played in midfield on several occasions. Potentially, that is the solution to his current lack of a home.

Moyes has targeted an array of midfielders this summer, starting with Cesc Fabregas, Thiago and now Marouane Fellaini. It seems that the formation United adopt will depend on the midfielder they manage to purchase.

Considering midfield is the area of the pitch in which United are light, putting Jones there could be a productive solution. Although he is a more defensively minded player, he is a supremely talented footballer. He could sit at the base of the midfield, break up opposition attacks and feed play out to Carrick or the wings and help United break forward. He is also capable of the occasional surging run forward if passing avenues are blocked off.

Jones is only 21, but he is too good a player to wait in the wings forever. If his best hope for playing time is to wait for a period when there are enough defenders injured for him to start, he won't be satisfied.

It will be interesting to see whether Moyes decides to utilise Jones in a different role against Chelsea on Monday night. Jones showed against Real Madrid last season that he is capable of ruffling the feathers of the world's best; Cristiano Ronaldo was kept fairly quiet in Madrid. Chelsea's forwards could be in for a similarly tough time if they face Jones on Monday.

Regardless, Jones will want to improve on the 23 starts he made last season and will be hoping for a clearer idea of which position he is being groomed for. At present, he is like a Jedi without a light sabre. All the talent in the world, but unable to show it.

Follow Mark on www.twitter.com/markjpayne

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