By George Ankers
Perhaps the most frustrating sight in football is vast potential unfulfilled; Phil Jones is still a long way away from such a future but his latest injury setback raises some worries.
The Manchester United defender was on Saturday ruled out for approximately two months after undergoing surgery for a knee injury picked up in training. Having previously been laid low with a back problem during pre-season, it is likely to be at least November until the youngster plays his first game of the 2012-13 campaign.
For a boy compared by no less than Fabio Capello to the great Franco Baresi, Jones' progression since moving to Old Trafford last summer for over £16 million has not quite been in the steady incline that would be hoped.
Things had started very well as the England youth international's rambunctious energy and strength made a good first impression but from the New Year – starting with an awful, match-losing effort in United's 3-0 away defeat by Newcastle – it went downhill.
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Young players will go through peaks and troughs as they find themselves but, with United suffering a defensive crisis at the start of this season, injury has cost Jones an opportunity to build his confidence with some regular games.
How Sir Alex would have liked to field the youngster at centre-back instead of Michael Carrick when Everton's Marouane Fellaini bullied the United defence to kick their Premier League campaign off on the wrong foot.
Jones could equally, of course, have been used to fill the void at right-back instead, not to mention midfield, but this versatility could in fact be a hindrance rather than a help to his development right now.
The United boss has spoken before of his feeling that Jones' best position will be in central midfield but he has not yet been afforded regular games in the same place on the pitch. For a young player, this must be somewhat confusing.
Focusing on one role at which to excel would seem to be the best way for a youngster to grow most quickly, branching out into other positions once their core game has been better defined. Jones' natural versatility has seen him deployed several times at right-back, where his positional naivety has been exploited in some of his more humbling United outings.
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The Red Devils manager knows better than most how to develop a young star but he is also very partial to a utility man; John O'Shea racked up just shy of 400 appearances for the club in what seemed a similar number of different positions. Jones may be able to perform the same function to suit his team but it may not suit his own development.
The injuries themselves are, perhaps for now, the greater concern, however. In an era when footballers are tending to peak at younger and younger ages, prolonged time away from the game at such a crucial period cannot be a good thing.
Jones, of course, is some way away from Jack Wilshere levels of stymie but fans of United and England alike will hope that his recovery is swift and the consequences of two successive complaints are few.
And if central midfield is truly where Sir Alex sees his young charge's future, then giving him a chance to prove himself the strong, influential presence in the middle that critics have been screaming for United to buy would be a welcome sight upon his return.
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