Sir Alex Ferguson grabbed all the headlines when he retired from the game at the end of last season. And why shouldn’t he? Manchester United grew into the dominant force in English football as a result of his influence. But there was another significant departure from both the club and the game. Paul Scholes left the game of football as one of England and United’s finest ever players. He played a huge part in Ferguson’s era of dominance after breaking into the side back in 1994. So often a game-changer when the ball was at his feet, the quality of his vision and execution was matched by very few. Replacing him was always going to be a near impossible task. But when new manager David Moyes voiced his intent to strengthen the midfield this summer, fans were encouraged by the fact that he was at least going to try. He failed. Marouane Fellaini, though a useful player who will no doubt bring a level of physicality and presence that was missing from United’s central midfield, is not a player in Scholes’ mould. Ander Herrera wouldn’t have been a like-for-like replacement either, but he would’ve brought back some of the creativity that Scholes’ departure took away. But United refused to push the boat out for the Spaniard, opting for Fellaini instead, and at £4 million more than they could have got him earlier in the summer. And this isn’t the start of it. Reported interest in the likes of Luka Modric, Thiago Alcantara, and others failed to materialize into done deals over the years. Saying that, why have United, up to now, failed to replace such a key player in Paul Scholes? In truth, it’s anyone’s guess. Ferguson repeatedly claimed over the years that he was happy with his midfield, while fans are adamant that the club’s owners, the Glazers, are refusing to provide the cash needed to sign a top quality reinforcement. Whatever the case, the failure to nab a top quality creative midfielder has cost United over the years and looks set to cost them again this season.
In the games United have played so far this campaign, the absence of ideas in the middle of the park remains painfully evident. “We just couldn’t find the right pass… to make the chance,” Moyes lamented following the goalless draw at home to Chelsea. Interestingly enough, finding the right pass was exactly what Scholes was about. He attempted an average of nine long balls per game in his 16 appearances last season, completing a very impressive 85% of them. Overall, he completed a staggering 92% of his passes, this despite him averaging a pass length of 20 meters. He was the very personification of wonderful vision and technique. Of course, picking passes was only half of his game, though it became pretty much all of it as he was forced to save his legs in a deeper position once his career had entered its twilight period. But in his early days his forays forward were a genuine threat. It wasn’t strange to see the ginger-haired maestro popping up in the box to rifle an effort beyond a sprawling opposition keeper. The 20 goals he scored in all competitions back in the 2002/2003 season remains his best ever tally and showed that he was about scoring just as much as he was about passing. Nowadays, only Michael Carrick at least comes close to what Scholes brought to United’s midfield and that’s only as far as passing is concerned.
No matter what Ferguson said before and Moyes is saying now, United’s midfield still miss the kind of drive, movement, and incision that a Scholes in his prime offered. And it misses the goals he contributed back in his youthful days. United fans no doubt feel that this problem has dragged on long enough, and that it’s time the club finally rectified it. Failure to do so will see the club continue to suffer – in the league, but particularly in Europe.