Friday, September 9, 2011

Replacing Paul Scholes

At the end of last season, Paul Scholes quietly announced his retirement from club football. At the age of 36, his decision wasn't shocking, but unceremonious the manner of his announcement may have been--if you didn't know Scholes.

Paul Scholes was a model professional on and off the field. Instead of getting caught up in the glitz of being an international superstar like so many of his teammates, he once described his ideal day as "training in the morning, pick my children up from school, play with them a bit, have tea, put them to bed and watch a little TV."

But the "Ginger Prince" doesn't earn column inches with his docile demeanor. He is commonly regarded as the best midfielder of a generation, a tag that has been given to him by Xavi, Thierry Henry, Zidane-- guys who know how to pick a pass.

When he finally hung up his boots, the typically frenzied English press was frothing about the Scholes-shaped hole in Manchester United's midfield. Wesley Sneijder, the Inter Milan #10 was the pundit's favorite. Well, the transfer window came and went, and Sneijder still wears blue and black. What went wrong?

Nothing. There were plenty of playmakers changing teams--Nasri to Man City, Arteta to Everton, Raul Meireles to Chelsea--and Sneijder publicly clamored for the move. But Sir Alex Ferguson hinted from the very beginning that it wouldn't happen, and for good reason.

United haven't played with a traditional #10 in years--matter of fact, rarely under Ferguson. Even when Scholes was in his prime, he didn't play in the #10 position, namely, tucked in centrally behind the two strikers.

This was by design, not necessity: Ferguson loves strikers who can play the game like Wayne Rooney, dropping into the midfield, and allowing wingers to get forward. He did this with Cantona. He did it with Tevez. And frankly, he molded Wayne Rooney into his dream striker.

Because these players were dropping deeper, into the space between the opposition's back four and midfield, there was no need for a #10, and frankly, no room for one. As such, Scholes reverted to a more traditional central midfield position with new responsibilities. He sits in along a flat four, playing off Rooney and allowing both the wingers and the fullbacks to get forward. In short, to properly use the oft-misplaced cliche; he is the quarterback.

Now, back to replacing him: where Arsene Wenger famously harvests young players for specific positions based on laughably rigid physical criteria, Ferguson creates his own. It usually works: see Wayne Rooney, Patrice Evra, Nicky Butt. Occasionally, it doesn't: Michael Carrick, John O'Shea, Wes Brown. What Fergie does best is adapting his squads to what he has available. This season, their strength is on the wings, so box-to-box midfielder Anderson is in the lineup so that Ashley Young and Nani can linger near the final third.

The long-winded point is this: trust Ferguson. Scholes was an incredible, once-in-a-generation player. He can't be replaced. But the good news for United is that he doesn't need to be.

No comments:

Post a Comment