Phil Jones' new deal at Man United proves Louis van Gaal's faith in him
So Phil Jones has signed a new contract that will keep him at Old Trafford until 2019. This is a deal that, at one point in Jones' Manchester United career, would have been widely celebrated. Now, though, there is a sense that he still has much work to do.
This is partly because his time at the club, like that of his fellow centre-backs Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling, has been frustratingly punctuated by injury. It is also because of something that manager Louis van Gaal, in discussing this new deal, drew attention to.
"Phil is a talented footballer with great versatility," said Van Gaal, "and can play in a number of positions."
And many would say that this is the issue -- that just because Jones can play in several positions, it does not mean that he should, and has perhaps inhibited his development as a player. So often has Jones been shunted between centre-back, right-back and defensive midfield that he has arguably not had the continuity to become dominant in any one of those roles. At times, he looks set to become a utility man like Phil Neville before him, willing to fill in whenever required but without a specific brief that he can truly call his own.
Or perhaps there is a better way to look at this, that Jones' new deal is a sign of Van Gaal's respect for his footballing intelligence. The manager values adaptability in a player as much as anything, hence his acquisition of Daley Blind, and he seems to see the same qualities in Jones.
Jones is not particularly effective as a right-back, but he can stand in there against all but the very best teams. Meanwhile, he has produced superb performances in defensive midfield -- the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 vs. Real Madrid in 2013 was an example -- as well as at centre-back against very fine opposition.
To call him merely a jack-of-all-trades would therefore be a little uncharitable, since he is somewhat more accomplished than that.
The fact remains, though, that Jones is 23 and he is still not the comfortable first choice in any of his positions. Part of this is due to the fact that the quality of distribution does not match his fine defensive instincts. In midfield, Jones is an excellent stopper, Gareth Bale, for one, can attest to this as evidenced in Manchester United's 1-1 draw with Tottenham in January 2013. He managed to contain Bale so well that Spurs had to switch the star's position so that they could create anything meaningful.
However, despite his ability to man mark players, he is not so good at moving the ball from defence to attack at speed. As a centre-back, Jones is better when paired alongside a ball-playing defender, who would typically be Chris Smalling, but there is emerging competition -- some might say, healthily so -- from Paddy McNair and Marcos Rojo.
Then, of course, there is the possibility of the arrival of Sergio Ramos from Real Madrid. Ramos, one of the world's greatest defenders in recent years, is comfortable both at centre-back and right-back, and his acquisition would improve United's defence considerably.
If a player of his quality is to arrive, it would make more sense to position him at the heart of the back four, since his presence would do much to alleviate the seemingly inevitable sale of goalkeeper David De Gea. This, then, would see Jones competing with several other centre-backs for a spot alongside Ramos. And with Antonio Valencia in very reliable form at right-back, where United are looking to make further recruitment, Jones is looking at the prospect of a season where he will not be a regular starter.
This may not worry him unduly, at least not for the time being. Given his youth, he may be willing to bide his time for another season, as he benefits from Van Gaal's possession-based coaching.
There is perhaps a parallel to be drawn here with Arsene Wenger's arrival at Arsenal, when he worked with excellent defenders who were not so confident on the ball and made them into well-rounded players. Looking at some of Van Gaal's more unusual experiments last season, playing with a back three, allowing Jones to take corners, it does seem as though he was looking for the England player to express his technique as well as he could, by giving him as much time on the ball as possible.
In retrospect, Van Gaal's efforts with Jones seem to represent his great faith in the player, and suggest that Jones' dip in form over the last couple of seasons may be just that -- a dip, and not a sign of a gradual decline.
On Sir Alex Ferguson's departure from Old Trafford, he hailed Jones as potentially the best player the club had ever seen. While that was, to put it mildly, a somewhat bold prediction, Van Gaal clearly believes that Jones' very best years are some way ahead of him. And that, of itself, is cause for considerable optimism.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.