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Mar 22, 2012

Jack of all trades, master of none

Perhaps it was the precocious ease with which the teenager adapted to new positions, perhaps the nerveless relish for the major occasion that suggested he was born to star on the big stage, perhaps it was the physical power as he surged past opponent after opponent. Perhaps it was simply the bulging thighs.

When Sir Bobby Charlton compared Phil Jones to Duncan Edwards, people listened. As arguably Manchester United's greatest player and a sober judge rarely carried away on tides of hype, his words carry weight. As Fabio Capello, another not known for excessive praise, likened Jones to Franco Baresi and Fernando Hierro, a glorious future would appear to be set in stone. As many of those who have encountered Jones, including Stuart Pearce, Micah Richards and Michel Salgado, have queued up to anoint him a future England captain, his destiny seems clear.

Except that there are reasons to leave Jones at home when England travel to Euro 2012 this summer. The decision obviously depends on whichever manager is parachuted in at the last minute but an examination of Jones' season, initially so uplifting, gives grounds for his omission. While youthful exuberance can be deemed a benefit, an antidote to experience and a sign the manager is planning for the future, it may be a short-term regime. While versatility normally counts in a player's favour, Jones currently looks more a Jack of all trades than a master of any.

Consider the situation in each of his three regular roles. Jones ranks as United's fifth-choice central defender, deployed there only when three of Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling are absent. His partnerships with Ferdinand have been especially problematic - remember the concession of three goals against Basle? - which indicates they should be separated in the summer. It was notable that, when Jones came on against Netherlands, Pearce preferred to move Richards into the middle of the defence, where he has only made a handful of appearances in the last few years, rather than the younger man.

Pearce selected Smalling and Gary Cahill ahead of Jones against Netherlands and, while the equation is complicated by the question of whether both Ferdinand and John Terry can be selected - and if not, whether either should be - the finest example of the battle-hardened dependability that centre-backs need to display came from Phil Jagielka and Joleon Lescott in November's win over Spain.

Jones' rise to prominence, meanwhile, has been accompanied by a decline in his defending. His task is to rediscover the solidity he showed at Blackburn when he was a stopper first and foremost. Despite occasional forceful breaks from deep, he had fewer pretensions to dominate in other departments of the pitch. Even when Sam Allardyce deployed him as a defensive midfielder, he was less adventurous that he has been for much of the current campaign.

It is a year where he has been at his best at right-back. His buccaneering charges forward have added to United's attacking armoury, without leaving as exploitable a gap in defence. It has helped, too, that barring the Da Silva twins, each equally undistinguished over the last few months, Sir Alex Ferguson has no out-and-out right back. However, England, for once, have a surfeit. When Pearce picked him against Netherlands, there was a recognition Richards has been the best in the Premier League this season. In competitive games, Glen Johnson is the incumbent and, while he can be defensively deficient, that tends to be more apparent for club than country. Kyle Walker offers an alternative to Jones, a youngster with a penchant for swift breaks deep into enemy territory, but has a greater grounding in the right-back role.

In the middle of midfield, meanwhile, if fit, Scott Parker, Steven Gerrard, Gareth Barry, James Milner and Jack Wilshere must be probable picks for Euro 2012, whoever is selecting the squad. The Old Trafford outsider staking the strongest case for inclusion is Michael Carrick, not Jones. He retains possession rather better, which is crucial in the international game, and has the positional discipline that the holding role requires (and that England often lack). The chastening evening the (now) 20-year-old Jones endured against Athletic Bilbao ought to count against him; it is questionable, too, if he is suited to playing in a central midfield duo.

The overall picture is of a player with incredible potential but not a position, at least as far as England is concerned. Euro 2012 could prove the first of six or seven international tournaments in his career, but only if Jones is deemed one of the two best options for any spot in the side. Thus far, he is not.

With a reminder of the fundamentals of defensive play that he demonstrated at Blackburn, that can be remedied. It was rather obscured amid other, remarkable resemblances but when Jones debuted at Ewood Park, some spotted similarities with Terry. In time, those comparisons may be made again. Jones' long-term fate should entail becoming a centre-back and England captain. But the path is not as smooth as it seemed and it could involve a detour, on United's right flank and to the margins for his country. If Jones goes to Poland, it will be because of promise, rather than performances.

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