It is little wonder the topic that keeps rearing its head among Manchester United's supporters this season is why their club did not invest in a creative central midfielder last summer. All those tantalising Wesley Sneijder stories only whetted the appetite once Paul Scholes pulled off that No18 shirt for the last time.

At the start of the season the sense of urgency about a replacement was less intense as United began defending their title so convincingly. But gradually the options in the middle of the park have dwindled – Anderson injured, Tom Cleverley injured, Darren Fletcher ill. Ryan Giggs, evergreen as he is, can hardly be expected to play every high-intensity match at the age of 38.

Sir Alex Ferguson has been forced to juggle much more than he would wish for in such a key area and the lack of stability has been an irritant. So it was that United lined up against Queens Park Rangers with Phil Jones and Michael Carrick in tandem. On the surface it was not the most imaginative central pairing they have ever fielded. But before long there were signs that something interesting was stirring. A few minutes into the match a tweet from Phil Neville crackled across the ether: "Phil jones reminds me of a young Roy keane."

Wayne Rooney may have given United the lead with the kind of ruthless and focused energy he is able to harness when at his best but it was hard to take your eyes off this huge 19-year-old who continually strode across the pitch at Loftus Road brimming with intent. When Jones begins motoring he is quite a force and his surging runs are a trademark that proves very useful indeed to United.

"His energy's really important to the team at the moment," Ferguson said. "He's got tremendous potential and he's got great energy, which you saw here. He was up and down the pitch, making fantastic runs through the middle. He could've scored two or three himself."

If it was a surprise Jones did not add to recent run of goals (he was unfortunate with one effort which ricocheted off the far post) the bigger surprise was that the man alongside him did score. Although Carrick has spent a lot of this season on the periphery, he has always been valued by Ferguson.

He repaid that faith with a solo goal to seal the points. It was as if he suddenly felt compelled to do his best Phil Jones impression, as he set off on a powerful run through the heart of what passed for a Rangers resistance, then picked his spot. His joy was evident. It was his first league goal for almost two years.

It will be interesting to see what Ferguson does with Jones when he has a greater complement of central midfielders to choose from, when players such as Anderson and Cleverley return. Will he be withdrawn to centre‑half? Will he be utilised even more at right-back? Or is he making enough of an impression to suggest Neville may be on to something and the rest will be competing to play alongside him at the team's heart?

United's numerous injuries this season have propelled Jones into becoming a mainstay perhaps a little earlier than he could have imagined when he signed from Blackburn Rovers (only Rooney, Nani and Patrice Evra have played more league games). It has also given him the opportunity to audition in various positions. That is the intriguing challenge for him as well as for his manager, to pin down a regular position. Few of the most important players relish being a utility player.

In addition to his pure playing qualities Jones also plays with personality. His emotions are there for all to see. There was one notable moment as United broke down the right and Jones made a bursting run into space. When there was no sign of a pass, and the move broke down, the teenager flung his arms around in frustrated dismay. The youngest member of the team is clearly comfortable making his feelings known to anyone.

Since that cataclysmic 6-1 defeat at home to Manchester City United have garnered 19 out of 21 points in the Premier League. They may not yet be back at their fluent best. They may find a few areas exposed against better opponents. But they responded to a mighty shock to the system in classic Ferguson style. The visiting supporters stuck their chests out sufficiently even to make light of their new European status. "Channel 5 is wonderful," they sang, loud and almost proud.