Chris Smalling and Phil Jones have returned (yay!), but patience is required

Ian Walton

It is, quite obviously, very exciting to have Chris Smalling and Phil Jones back in action for Manchester United. However, be careful with your expectations as patience is required for both talented youngsters as they continue to develop.

Patience is a virtue that is becoming increasingly rare in football. This was clearly exemplified yesterday when Chelsea sadly* sacked Roberto Di Matteo -- a man that is respected by their supporters for his playing career at the club and more importantly, as a manager that delivered the European Cup to them just six months ago for the first time in their history.

* By 'sadly,' I simply mean how this is a display of incredible fickleness in football. I clearly have no affinity for Chelsea Football Club.

This impatience can extend to fans as well. For example, when Phil Jones made an electric start to his Manchester United career in the early months of last season, many were already projecting the then 19-year-old as a future captain for club and country while Fabio Capello compared to him to the legendary Franco Baresi. When injuries and fatigue set in, though, in the latter half of last season, Jones' form dipped and some worryingly wondered whether he was over-hyped. This was, of course, ironic since the hype machine was never the fault of the talented youngster in the first place. Point being, many -- whether that be owners, the board room, managers, fans, etc. -- can be way too reactionary and this often comes from a very small sample size of events. Things are rarely allowed to play out over time anymore without most quickly developing a definitive opinion on a team, manager, or player.

Two of United's exciting young first-team players -- Jones and Chris Smalling -- recently made returns from injuries that have hindered them both for much of the current calendar year. With Nemanja Vidic's continual knee-injuries -- which have been rather serious -- in the past year, with 34-year-old Rio Ferdinand's return to Old Trafford next season not a guarantee at this moment, and with Jonny Evans' inconsistencies at times, there is much optimistic hopefulness amongst United fans that Jones and Smalling can step in sooner rather than later in order to establish themselves as the next great central-defender pairing at the club -- and perhaps for England as well. It would be best, though, if we exhibited some patience and tempered expectations.

Undoubtedly, Jones and Smalling have great potential and they have had outstanding displays for both club and country at times. And with the current context that surrounds the trio of Vidic, Ferdinand, and Evans, the excitement over the return of Jones and Smalling is completely understandable. It's important to remember, though, that the outstanding displays by Smalling and Jones in a United shirt aren't occasions that have been plentiful -- yet, at least.

Smalling deputised for Ferdinand at times during the 2010/11 season and the then 21-year-old performed admirably alongside Vidic in some big matches. However, he only started in 11 Premier League games that season and during last season, he started 17 league matches -- but only 6 of those were at center-back while the rest were at right-back. And most of those occurred during last season's first-half. Jones had a superb Premiership debut at center-back for Blackburn Rovers as an 18-year-old up against Didier Drogba but he actually ended up making 18 of his 24 starts in midfield for his former club during the 2010/11 season. And during last season for United -- in his debut one -- of Jones' 29 combined Premiership and UEFA Champions League starts, only 9 of those were made as a central-defender. Much more development is needed for both Smalling and Jones at center-back before we can place grand expectations on them.

This season is important for the two young England internationals. As already discussed, both have undeniable talent but development is required if one or both are to be consistently relied upon for big games -- something United will surely be involved in often this season both domestically and in Europe. The opportunity is there for Smalling and Jones to move up the pecking order in United's central-defense but this shouldn't be an expectation yet. Both players have the experience of playing in big games, but both are relatively inexperienced as first-team players at a big club. It's important for United's fans and the media to be patient as both talented youngsters continue to develop. We don't even know yet whether center-back is Jones' best position.

Be careful with your expectations for both talented players. Be understanding if one or both struggle at times this season and if this happens, don't let disappointment set in. Let them to continue to develop. See how things play out for them and also for the other central-defenders this season. Let's go from there. It's quite exciting to have two such talented youngsters, but patience is required.

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