Any team is going to miss a player like Paul Scholes. There is a reason why contemporaries of his position like Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Zinedine Zidane hold him in such esteem. Footballers with such vision, majesty and intelligence are as rare and sought after as gems. In a world of soundbites and tweets that a gifted player like ‘The Ginger Prince’ should shirk the limelight only endears him further.
Following his retirement last summer Manchester United’s midfield underwent a transition and Tom Cleverley played an integral part at the start of the season. Some of the football United played in those first few weeks was sublime. It was typified by quick, one touch passing around the box utilising mobile, interchangeable players. Sound familiar? You could say it was Barca-lite and Cleverley’s introduction was key.
Take a look at the equaliser against Manchester City in the Community Shield and the slick exchange of passes between Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney to open up a gap and release Nani through on goal. If this was not a direct attempt to mimic Barcelona’s style then it was a goal certainly worthy of the Catalans.
Of course, planning to adopt a different style is one thing but having the players at your disposal is another. With the summer to think it through Sir Alex Ferguson had the personnel in mind for reverting back to a strikerless system with players who could assume different positions in and around the box such as Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Nani.
One of the main components in using a strikerless system is having forward thinking midfielders who can move the ball quickly and intelligently. At the start of the season, Anderson and Cleverley performed this role admirably and form was carried into the league with emphatic victories against Tottenham and Arsenal.
While the introduction of Cleverley into the first team was not the only reason for the team’s sparkling play he had caught the eye of the then England manager, Fabio Capello. Unfortunately, the call-up for a friendly against the Netherlands was just that as a crude challenge from Bolton’s Kevin Davies ended Cleverley’s chances of making any real progress in the first-team squad.
Come January, Paul Scholes had pulled out of retirement and graced Manchester United’s midfield once more. Apparently, he was what Manchester United were missing during those dark days following the ‘match that will not be mentioned’. Form recovered to the point where Scholes’ deployment was seen as indispensable due to a series of narrow victories that had put Manchester United in pole position going into the run-in. Arguably, that dark day in October had more long-term effects than the sickening humiliation it brought.
Manchester United’s confidence had been crushed to the point where expansive play was replaced by a stoic determinism at grinding out victories. Paul Scholes slotted in nicely where his governing of the tempo matched the slower, more methodical pace. On the other side of Manchester, City were racking up drubbings and boosting their goal difference yet it all seemed in vain coming into the final half a dozen games of the season. We all know what happened next.
Scholes has decided to stay on for another year but how long can his deployment paint over the cracks? Thankfully, Cleverley has had the sort of pre-season which should see him right back into contention. His composed and confident performances in Team GB’s midfield have won plaudits as his enterprising brand of football (as opposed to his marketing one) rubbed off on a hastily put together team.
Arguing that Cleverley is the answer to the Paul Scholes’ problem would be foolhardy but he does present a welcome alternative. If United are to compete then they have to learn to adapt. Sooner rather than later the old guard of Scholes and Giggs will step down and a new generation will step in.
The purchase of Shinji Kagawa represents a forward thinking approach in line with a selection of young, attack-minded players willing to constantly swap positions. Whilst any team would miss Paul Scholes the time has come for a change in style with Tom Cleverley dictating it.
By Omar Solimon