When Sir Alex Ferguson signed Phil Jones from Blackburn Rovers in June, it was not immediately clear how many games the England Under-21 defender would play at first, given that Manchester United were already well-served in his position. Probably Carling Cup ties, perhaps the odd easy-looking Champions League match, maybe an occasional Premier League game when one of the first-choice players needed a rest.
In the event, he has appeared in every match so far, starting all but one of United's league games, playing both in the centre of defence and at right-back, and with a variety of defensive partners. Injuries to Nemanja Vidic and Chris Smalling have created openings, but such is his growing importance to the United team that it is becoming hard to see how Ferguson will soon be able to leave him out, whoever else is available.
"I played every week with Blackburn but I knew that that would be tough to ask for [at Manchester United] but I've enjoyed it and I love doing what I'm doing," Jones said. "It's been difficult to have a back four that we've used regularly all season. But all the lads are capable of switching around the back four and the sign of champions is that you can play in any position and still prove that you're good enough to play there."
Not that he seems to have much to prove, with even Sir Bobby Charlton said to see similarities with Duncan Edwards, the greatest of the Busby Babes who, like Jones, could play both in midfield and defence.
Of course, at 19, Jones is not yet the finished article, as was shown at times against a hard-working Norwich City on Saturday, for example when former United trainee Anthony Pilkington stepped inside him rather too easily before forcing a save from Anders Lindegaard. He also found Norwich forward Steve Morison a robust and unsettling presence at times, but although he has enjoyed, and no doubt will enjoy, more comfortable afternoons, the bustling Morison consistently got less change from him than from Jonny Evans.
Typically, when Morison robbed Evans with the scores level in the second half, Jones, left as the sole defender between the Norwich forward and goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard, moved across to execute a well-timed block, snuffing out what had been a dangerous situation for United. "Norwich were very dangerous and they had a few good players up front – sharp and lively," he said. "I was needed a few more times than I expected to be."
And, of course, Jones can get forward too. He had launched United's first attack with an interception, a forward surge and a pass to Wayne Rooney, and, not for the first time this season, played a vital part in a goal, leaping high to reach Ryan Giggs' corner before Anderson gave United the lead. Later, with Rio Ferdinand on as a substitute, he moved to right back, delivering a low cross that Danny Welbeck should have converted to make the game safe.
Jones apart, United gave a pedestrian performance redeemed by only their third clean sheet in the league this season, although that could have been different had Norwich taken a number of chances, the best squandered by Pilkington after he robbed Antonio Valencia. "We'd had back-to-back wins, we've come here on a high and we're leaving disappointed," Morison said. "It was a game I don't suppose other people expected us to win but we gave a very, very good account of ourselves."
Scorers: Man Utd Anderson 68, Welbeck 87.
Substitutes: Man Utd Giggs 6 (Nani, 64), Welbeck 6 (Hernandez, 65), Ferdinand (Anderson, 77). Norwich Crofts 6 (Bennett, 74), Jackson 5 (Fox, 74), Martin (Hoolahan, 85). Booked: Man Utd Welbeck. Norwich None. Man of the match Jones.
Match rating 6/10. Possession: Man Utd 55% Norwich 45%. Attempts on target: Man Utd 9 Norwich 6. Referee S Attwell (Warwickshire).
Attendance 75,514.Reuse content