Amid all the controversy that, at least for the blue half of Manchester, surrounded Sunday’s FA Cup fixture, one might be forgiven for almost forgetting something that transcended the meanings of those 90 minutes – Paul Scholes is back.
Following his retirement in May, the United legend announced his comeback to help the club in a time of difficulty, in a totally unexpected move for most of the public.
Scholes had been coaching the reserves for six months and claimed that he “had missed football too much”, hence his decision to knock on Ferguson’s door to declare himself available for the remainder of the season.
As much as his decision took the gloss off the eagerly awaited fixture immediately before kick off, it then went lost in the post match interviews, before sparking different reactions on Monday’s papers.
Legacy in danger? Masterstroke? The debate is likely to linger on for the rest of season.
First and foremost, let’s set the record straight. Paul Scholes is one of the most gifted midfielders to have graced English football in the last 40 years and, something of a rarity these days, has always been an example on and off the pitch.
His records are unquestionable and his loyalty to United undisputed such as his cult hero among the fans.
Many, myself included, thought it was somehow unjust that the greatest midfielder of his generation should retire from the game after losing a Champions League final but, as we know, fairytale ends are hard to come by in football.
Xavi and Iniesta, sublime playmakers in a Barcelona that might well be in the process of defining a football age, have often spoken of their admiration for the United number 18 (or 22 if you prefer the, less romantic, 2012 version) and even the great Zinedine Zidane left no room for doubts when asked who was the best player he had ever faced. “Paul Scholes”, replied Zizou.
While United fans would have been filled with emotions and some might have shed a tear or two as the Ginger Ninja entered the pitch once more, a few questions would have emerged in the back of their minds.
It is legitimate to wonder why United have resorted to bring a player back from retirement, rather than spending money on new players in a position that has been United’s weak link for some time now.
Furthermore, what does this mean for United’s youngsters? For a club that has always believed in young players, isn’t it somehow odd to favour a 37-year-old ahead of a 18-year-old prospect?
1) What does this mean for the rest of the season?
Scholes’ return would have probably never happened had United not faced such a big injury crisis in the engine room. After a blistering start to the campaign, which saw Anderson and Cleverley grow into the box-to-box midfielders that United’s fans had hoped to see, the system showed its flaws. Nowadays basically every team employs a holding midfielder to screen the back four from counter attacks but, without such a figure, the defence is left exposed as the two midfielders push up.
Cleverley looked ready to step in Scholes’ boots, and started the season in fine form, displaying the sort of passes and runs that earned him praise and comparison to his illustrious predecessor. Young Tom then fell victim of a horrendous Kevin Davies’ tackle against Bolton in August, before making his comeback against Aldershot in early October. Unfortunately he lasted only an hour in his following game – against Everton – before succumbing to another injury. His comeback plans have been delayed and he has yet to play in 2012.
Like Cleverley, Anderson had started the season in scintillating form, providing energy and runs into the box and, amazingly enough, even goals. In short, for the first time since joining from Porto, he looked close to the finished article.
With Cleverley and Anderson both out of the picture, responsibility fell on the shoulders of one of the most debated players in United’s recent history: Michael Carrick.
The Geordie, often accused of being uninventive and scared of going forward, after a couple of shaky performances has grown into a new defensive role, without abandoning his passing duties. He might not be in the mould of Xavi (but, frankly, who is?) but United’s number 16 has one of the best range of passing in the Premier League and has recently shown to be more than a decent tackler as well, even if some sections of the fans remain unconvinced.
Tackling would have normally been part of Darren Fletcher’s duties but the Scot took a – long – break from football to nurse a serious medical condition and Phil Jones has filled in brilliantly. Despite believing he’s a centre-back, the youngster has a Robsonesque aura when deployed in midfield.
Ryan Giggs has, again, being excellent in midfield but United simply can not afford to field two wingers in the middle of the park has they have done against Blackburn, particularly when one of them is 38.
With Gibson joining Everton for £1M – another cut price sale? – it’s obvious that Scholes hasn’t been brought back just to warm the bench.
During the latter days of Scholes’ United career, Anderson, Carrick and Fletcher have partnered him in midfield, so adapting won’t be an issue. While he might not start many games, a fit Paul Scholes can unlock defences like no one else. That final pass is exactly what United have lacked in some games this season, so it’s not madness to see him coming on for the last 30 minutes of a game, with United needing calm and composure.
Obviously a lot will depend on his performances, but it’s unlikely to see Scholes starting ahead of Cleverley, once the latter will have made his comeback from injury, but the thought of Scholes playing alongside Carrick and Jones in a 4-5-1 formation isn’t as absurd as it might seem. It would have to be, admittedly, the exception and not the rule but with big games away from home from here to May, that sort of midfield would offer muscle, strength and skills.
While many seem to have forgotten about it, United are still involved in three different competitions which means that Scholes could see a lot more action than initially thought.
Last but not least, Paul Scholes’ experience could prove invaluable in the dressing room during the run-in, the man definitely knows how to win a trophy.
2) What does this mean for the future?
One of the first arguments to arise after Scholes announced his return was that his decision would stop the development of some of United’s young players in its tracks.
While Scholes is definitely not the long-term solution United needed (and still need), it’s somehow off the mark to see his comeback as a detrimental decision.
Paul Pogba, deemed by many to be a future star, has been in the spotlight recently after his agent tried to engineer a move to Inter Milan – and a better paycheck – for his protégé. Pogba is definitely a quality player but is a player that, bar the occasional cameo, hasn’t even featured in the Carling Cup, ready to be thrown in at the deep end of a Premier League game? Fergie’s conduct seems to suggest otherwise.
With Ryan Tunnicliffe on loan at Peterborough and Ravel Morrison officially up for sale – Fergie has dealt with volatile characters in the past and Morrison could regret leaving United, maybe for the rest of his career– and the other youngsters too raw to make leap to the first team, it’s a easy to see how the issue is actually not an issue at all, particularly considering that Scholes will be a United player only for another four and a half months. If anything, training and playing with Paul Scholes could help Tom Cleverley to improve even more.
Injuries might have torn through United’s midfield this season but no one can deny that United have to go out and spend on one, preferably two, world class midfielders.
The candidates for the job have been earmarked for some time now, give or take a name or two, but nothing has been done, which brings us to…
3) What does this mean financially?
After the Champions League and Premier League double in 2007-08 and another title and Champions League final the following year, United saw the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez. This meant that the style of football had to be changed, albeit not completely, to accommodate new signings.
Only after the disappointing defeat in Rome, though, central midfield emerged as the key issue for Ferguson. That night in the Olympic Stadium, a Barcelona team that was starting to re-write the books ran rings around United midfielders, the Reds unable to prevent them to pass the ball around and, tellingly, unable to do anything with the ball themselves.
Initially the cause was laid solely on Darren Fletcher’s absence. The Scot had been in superb form during the season but a red card in the second leg of the semifinal prevented him from taking part in the final.
The problem though, was much deeper and it was to emerge again in the following season, making it impossible to ignore and almost derailing United’s quest for more trophies.
Injuries and players underperforming didn’t help, while superb performances from players deployed out of position – Ryan Giggs – have papered over the cracks for a few seasons now.
United last signed a midfielder in 2007, when Owen Hargreaves and Anderson moved from Bayern Munich and Porto.
During each transfer window that has gone by since then United fans have grown desperate for a central midfielder that could unlock defences and dictate the play – others have craved a midfielder destroyer as well, but we will leave this for another time – in an era when the Premier League saw the emergence of Luka Modric, Samir Nasri, Mikel Arteta, Rafel Van der Vaart and David Silva.
After splashing out a combined £56 million over the 2006-07 summers for Carrick, Anderson and Hargreaves, United have spent in the region of £140 million (£122.15 million declared, to which we have to add the transfers whose fees were not disclosed) and not a single penny was spent on a central midfielder.
Ferguson has always claimed that there was no value in the transfer window but it’s a statement hard to back up when one looks at the £6 million Spurs paid for Van der Vaart or the £3.5 Newcastle paid for Tiote – a different kind of player, but it illustrates the point – while even Silva and Modric went for considerably less than £30 million (Silva’s fee was undisclosed but believed to around £25 million, while Modric set Spurs back £16.5 million).
The Green and Gold campaign lost some of its momentum last year and for all his public support to the Glazers, by choosing to bring back a club legend from retirement instead of investing, Fergie has basically admitted what has been known for years.
United are no longer a force in the transfer market, due to an alarming lack of funds.
Paul Scholes’ return is a welcome one and he will undoubtedly help the team on the pitch and in dressing room, without jeopardizing his wonderful legacy and, in the long term, it might benefit United a lot more than it’s imaginable at the moment.
Recalling a retired player, rather than publicly accusing the Glazers, to show that his hands are tied, would be a typical Fergie move, wouldn’t it?
Time will tell, meanwhile, welcome back Scholesy.