At the weekend we all witnessed one of the dramatic comebacks which have now become the hallmark of Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson’s 25 year long stewardship
With Manchester United trailing by two goals to one to newly promoted Southampton at St Mary’s with just 30 minutes remaining Paul Scholes is ushered onto the pitch in the hope the technically gifted veteran can change the entire complexion of the game.
This is exactly what happened with United’s number 22 having an almost instantaneous impact on the game with Scholes dictating the tempo of the game and for the first time in the match giving United the ability to keep the ball.
This newfound control then led to more attacking play with Scholes ramping up the creativity in the side and United were rewarded just minutes after Scholes had been introduced when last season’s Premier League runners up were awarded a penalty following a careless Jose Fonte foul on Robin Van Persie.
The script suggested that Van Persie would as he did so many times during his Arsenal career thunder the ball into the back of the net and then United would go onto to win the game however the Premier League does not follow any logical script and Van Persie’s attempt to recreate the great Panenka penalty backfired to the highest degree with his tame effort being palmed away by the experienced Kelvin Davies. United not to be deterred however continued to create chances with the calm methodical approach of Paul Scholes proving to be the necessary differential from the boisterous approach of young Tom Cleverley and this in turn improved the flow of United’s play which Southampton were evidently struggling with as the match wore on.
Scholes distributed the ball wide, to the centre and even sideways to Michael Carrick during the final 20 minutes with Antonio Valencia and Javier Hernandez getting in behind the Southampton backline on multiple occasions. Scholes’ efforts were rewarded with just three minutes left of the ninety when Manchester United equalised through a Robin Van Persie tap in, and even greater spoils were to be taken by Sir Alex’s men when Robin Van Persie’s 92nd minute header secured both the Dutchman’s hat trick and all three points for United on a day when they had been up until the final half hour dreadfully dour.
Once the dust had settled and the celebrations had all but ceased it was a period of reflection for myself as a Manchester United supporter following the victory on the south coast with the team playing very poorly right up until Scholes came onto the field, and this was a scenario which United fans have become far too accustomed to over the past season where for the period up until January Paul Scholes was retired.
Sir Alex Ferguson was called upon by Manchester United supporters to sign a central midfielder last summer following the departure of Scholes and it looked like that would be needed however Ferguson instead tried a change of philosophy at the club. Whilst much is made of how close Wesley Sneijder actually came to joining United in the summer of 2011 and indeed to a greater extent how much of an effort Sir Alex Ferguson actually made to bring Internazionale’s Dutch playmaker to Old Trafford it was certain right from the off that the experienced Scot had invested significant amounts of faith in one Tom Cleverley following a fruitful loan spell at perennial relegation strugglers Wigan Athletic.
United started the season in a way never before seen in the days of Paul Scholes, with two central midfielders who were more adapted to getting forward and playing quick short passes in tight areas in the shape of Cleverley and Anderson whilst not utilising a recognizing deep lying playmaker as it were. This seemed to have been a positive move in the early part of the season with United’s much more continental style of play working a treat with the speedy midfield passing their way through Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and latterly Bolton Wanderers with remarkable ease before disaster was to strike.
A careless challenge from Kevin Davies saw Tom Cleverley stretchered off injured and his season was essentially over with the English midfielder featuring sparingly throughout the rest of the campaign following injury setback upon injury setback. The United team could not replicate their early season form and the midfield became a real concern with United struggling to create chances and the new style of play that Sir Alex had devised to push Manchester United closer to Barcelona was becoming ineffectual in the Premier League and following the long term illness suffered by Darren Fletcher the team was looking very very depleted in the middle of the pitch.
Whether it was simply a case of becoming over reliant on Paul Scholes over the years I do not know but Manchester United were struggling in January and following the home defeat to Blackburn Rovers Sir Alex knew something had to be done, and the only thing he could do was to bring Paul Scholes out of retirement. Scholes’ impact was emphatic with the former England international completely rejuvenating the United midfield alongside Michael Carrick whom throughout his seven year long Manchester United career has always looked much more confident and assured when playing alongside Scholes.
The change was evident with Manchester United looking so much more composed and confident when in possession of the ball during the second half of the season, Scholes had brought an air of calmness to the midfield with his uncanny ability to dictate the tempo of whole game transforming United from a worryingly unrefined one touch passing team to a well oiled composed creative machine, replicating the United side that had won the Barclays Premier League the season before. Manchester United went on an impressive run of 12 games unbeaten, eleven of which were victories from January through to April and you will find it hard to discover anybody who attributes this unbeaten run to anything other than the return of Paul Scholes.
It looked as if Manchester United had all but secured their 20th English title as they headed to the DW Stadium on the 11th April and maybe overconfidence took its toll on Sir Alex who left Paul Scholes out of the team to give him a rest following an extended run of games, the result was to be, in relation to United’s title bid almost terminal with Wigan Athletic earning a 1-0 victory over a United side who showed little to no creativity very much like in the early months of the season, pre-Scholes return. The squad looked bereft of ideas against Wigan and it was clear that the squad needed Scholes in it to perform.
Following the disappointment of losing out on the title on the final day of the season by the virtue of goal difference to Manchester City all supporters of Manchester United were given a significant boost in morale when the news that Paul Scholes had signed a one year contract extension was confirmed by the club. Many used this as a perfect excuse to pen more anti-Glazer literature stating that the club was only keeping Scholes on for another year to put off purchasing an expensive replacement but as we can all see from Manchester United’s other noticeably expensive business this past summer this was far from being the case.
Paul Scholes was signed up to a new deal as the club functions better with him in the side, it is a fact and has been a fact for the past decade yet it took losing him for an extended period of time for many to realise it, yes he has missed long periods before through injury but there always was the safety blanket of his inevitable return, at the start of last season that safety blanket had been taken away.
Following the impact he made yesterday at Southampton it is clear that the policy of not replacing Scholes and trying to completely change the way Manchester United play football is not the best option as we saw last season and as recently as yesterday when Scholes was not in the line-up and this leaves us with the obvious question “What do United do when Paul Scholes retires for good?”
This in itself is a question that we would all rather ignore and allow ourselves to live blissfully in the belief that Scholes will just keep playing on for the foreseeable future however this is not the case and much like the issues the club will face when Sir Alex Ferguson eventually leaves the club there will be decision to make next summer when Scholes leaves.
What Manchester United has to do is adapt rather than attempt wholesale change, Sir Alex tried wholesale change last season and it did not work so next summer a different approach has to be taken on board. Yes Tom Cleverley is a very good young player and will have a good future at the club but he is not Paul Scholes, he does not play in a similar fashion to Paul Scholes and more than likely never will. United need to recruit a player who is as similar to Scholes as possible, a player who will not change the dynamic and playing style of the successful Manchester United team that includes Scholes and whilst it is impossible to find a player the same as Scholes there are players who share many of his attributes.
His array of passing whether it is over a longer distance or short, his astonishing comfort when in possession of the football in difficult areas and his calmness when making a decision of where to distribute the ball are all traits that Sir Alex Ferguson has to look to find in the midfielder he brings in.
The player closest to Paul Scholes in my opinion is Luka Modric, he illustrates an air of calm when in possession very similar to Scholes and has an excellent range of passing however following his recent transfer to Real Madrid it is unlikely he will be a realistic target for Manchester United next summer providing he doesn’t have a difficult debut season in Spain in a similar manner to Nuri Sahin last year and his performance against Granada this weekend suggests he may well fit right in at the Bernabeu.
Whilst many will still clamour for Wesley Sneijder next summer the player I feel will suit Manchester United the most is João Moutinho of FC Porto, the Portuguese international who came according to reports within four minutes of signing for Tottenham Hotspur this past transfer window displays immense control on the ball and passes the football tremendously well with great accuracy, he may not have the long distance passing ability of Scholes yet he is still a truly creative playmaker who can dictate the game from a deep lying midfield position. It would be a practical transfer for United with Moutinho and Cleverley having the potential to be a fantastic partnership in the middle of midfield with Cleverley being able to go forward and link up with Kagawa who sits in the ‘false nine’ role with the quick one touch passing in tight areas that Cleverley has proven to be brilliant at and this could unlock defences whilst Moutinho could sit back and orchestrate the game from a deeper role.
It is clear that following his near transfer to Spurs Moutinho would be available next summer should a team meet Porto’s £25m valuation of the player and it is known that Sir Alex has long been an admirer of him since his days in the Portuguese capital with Sporting.
It is almost certain that at the age of thirty nine next summer, United legend Ryan Giggs will also call time on his career as a professional footballer with the Welshman very likely to go into coaching as many have done before him. For the past few seasons I have considered Ryan Giggs to be a central midfielder with him no longer able to play on the wings with the pace that he displayed in his earlier years it has been in the middle of the midfield where he has found himself the most. His experience as a footballer, passing ability and a surprising eye for a tackle has allowed him to become a more than useful central midfielder and with him more than likely to retire at the end of the season he too will have to be replaced.
Many have wanted a strong anchoring midfielder in the United side since the departure of Roy Keane and have never really got one, whilst the success of the club since then has done more than enough to quell these desires there has been an argument that since 2010 the Manchester United midfield has lacked bite. Should Moutinho be signed next summer then there may well be room for a tough tackling midfielder to play alongside him to give the Portimão born midfielder the necessary cover to enable him to play his game freely.
Many have spoken about Kevin Strootman of PSV Eindhoven coming in and playing in this role with the Dutch International despite possessing high levels of creativity also having the wherewithal to put in a forceful challenge. Former Netherlands head coach Bert van Marwijk often commented on Strootman’s impressive vision and attributed this as the reason he gave the PSV man his first International cap against Finland in 2011 however this leads me to believe that if he was to be brought in to be used as a holding midfielder it may well quash the creative side of his game andcould be detrimental to his development in the long term.
A further alternative if a strong tackler was to be brought in would be Yann M’Vila of Stade Rennais and whilst it seemed that for much of the previous twelve months he would be moving to Arsenal this summer that move never came to fruition and it may well be an avenue worth exploring for Manchester United. M’Vila would be a naturally defensive player with the 22-year-old being in the mould of Patrick Vieira only with a significantly higher technique on the ball. M’Vila as well as being a tough tackler can also play a bit with the Frenchman often being cited by opposition coaches as one to watch out for with his delicate touch and marauding forward runs having the ability to cause teams problems.
M’Vila sitting just behind João Moutinho would be a fantastically balanced midfield in the most simplistic of ways with a ball winner and ball player being present in the midfield two, this is something that has always worked with Roy Keane and Paul Scholes in 1999 and more recently with Scott Parker and Luka Modric at Tottenham Hotspur over the past season.
The price for M’Vila would also not break the bank with the Rennes club reportedly being willing to sell for a little under £15m.
Whilst it is easy to generate potential plans and ideas of how United should act when Scholes leaves it is impossible to second guess Sir Alex Ferguson and nobody will know for sure what he plans to do next summer until he has done it however with the evidence we have seen it is clear that Manchester United struggle tremendously without Paul Scholes and it would be far easier to bring in a player similar to him rather than try and restructure the whole balance of the side by changing the style of play.
Yes you have to continually adapt your style of play at the top level with recent years bringing the reintroduction of a ‘false nine’ sitting just behind the forward line to the forefront of European football and Manchester United have adapted to this themselves with the signing of Shinji Kagawa from Borussia Dortmund but there is a fine line between adapting with the times and total change and more often than not adaptation is more successful than total change, the old saying “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” comes to mind when you think of Manchester United’s style of play and it is with this attitude that I firmly believe the club should attempt to diminish the impact of Scholes leaving next summer as greatly as possible by bringing in a similar player whether it be Moutinho or another target, rather than once again look to wholesale change only to see it fail once more.
Who should United target to replace Paul Scholes when he retires?
image: © Magnus D