Of all the Manchester United stories hoped to emerge from the upheaval of the David Moyes reign, the redemption of Phil Jones was high on neither expectations nor the wishlist. In recent weeks, however, Jones has emerged as an unlikely improvised and (hopefully) temporary solution to the black hole at the centre of the United teamsheet.
Signed from Blackburn Rovers after a handful of superhuman displays - notably subjecting Didier Drogba to utter physical domination on his debut, Jones then looked to replicate that promise at United. Initially, he more than succeeded. At centre-back he was all-conquering, finding time to rampage forwards on dangerous runs. Then he was moved to midfield, where he was similarly dominant, before finding a spell at right-back where he even displayed a ferocious attacking intent and Beckham-esque crossing ability. He seemed an otherworldly talent.
Then, the problems of the small sample size of those displays began to be evident as his flaws emerged - a horrendous touch, little positional discipline, and the sheer terror of his early displays began to abandon him. Last year, he hit his nadir, appearing a shadow of his former self, aimlessly galumphing around to no avail in either defence or attack. There was a brief upswing towards the end of the year, most notably his admirable and almost successful attempts to shackle Cristiano Ronaldo, but he still seemed a disappointment.
Jones is a player for whom versatility has been as much of a curse as a virtue. He's been played all over the place at United, never getting to settle into a role or with a specific partner, and while everybody seems to be of the opinion that he will end up a centre-back, he appears destined to remain in midfield for the foreseeable future - because this season, he's emerged as an unlikely saviour in United's eternal position of need.
Jones' playing style is comparable to his face - best just trying to keep things simple. His buccaneering runs from centre-back were enjoyable to watch, but he's been far more effective this season simply placed in the middle of the pitch and told to stop anything trying to get through. This, more than creativity, is what United lack in midfield, and since he's been deployed there, United have looked twice the team.
The beauty of Jones at the moment is that he seems to be able to accomodate for all of the weaknesses of his teammates. His potential partners all lack at least two of speed, drive, power and heart, and in Michael Carrick's case, all four, but he's shown a great ability to complement them. Against Arsenal, he partnered Carrick and controlled the game for the first half, only for things to go sour when he was moved back into defence to be replaced by Tom Cleverley. With Cleverley, he helped the team deal out thrashings to Norwich and Fulham. And now with Ryan Giggs, he's helped the club to their biggest ever away win in the Champions League.
The question now is simply who can best partner him. Tom Cleverley is simply not good enough at anything to be the answer there, and while many will claim Carrick as the obvious answer, his inability to contribute anything defensively beyond getting in the way means that better options, even with the current meagre resources, probably exist. Ryan Giggs has pace and can tackle - two unexpected traits from a forty-year-old winger - but is either benefiting at the moment because he is being used very sparingly or because, as has coincided with the best spells of his career, he is trying to win a new contract.
One option that has not been deployed yet is Marouane Fellaini (we won't waste time considering Anderson.) The pair would certainly give United lots of steel in the position, as well as two aerially-dominant forces. They will lack creativity, but their presence will also embolden Patrice Evra and Rafael to display the full range of their attacking capabilities. It may not be perfect, but it may be the best option until United can get in another play assuming that Giggs cannot be relied upon every week.
Ultimately, it would be hoped that Jones' ideal partner is the player Manchester United will buy in a month's time. But until then, he should certainly be starting every game possible in midfield. It would be worth England considering him too, since they lack any viable alternatives for the role. Despite the insistence that his future remains in defence, so long as club and country are in need of someone to kick anything that moves in midfield, his presence can be invaluable right now.