After 17 glorious years as a Manchester United player, Paul Scholes finally decided to hang up his boots leaving Sir Alex Ferguson with a huge gap to fill not only in his midfield but in the dressing room as well. Considering his astonishing ability on the field, his loyalty towards the club, his influence on younger players and demeanor off the field in an age when several footballers find themselves surrounded by controversy, saying that Paul Scholes is irreplaceable may not be an exaggeration. Having seen legends come and go in his 24-year long tenure as the United boss, Sir Alex now faces the almost impossible task of finding an able successor for the Ginger Ninja.
Who could claim to be the best midfielder in the Premier League today? Lampard? Gerrard maybe? Just compare the pass completion rates of the players and you will have no doubts about Scholes’s superiority. Modric? Fabregas? Neither player is capable of scoring 20 goals a season. Scholes is the complete midfielder. His passing, ball retention, strength, vision, technique, shooting and finishing – all are a class above the rest.
He has played as an attacking midfielder, in the hole behind the striker and as a ball playing defensive midfielder. The fact that legends like Zidane and Xavi consider him to be the best central midfielder of his generation speaks volumes about his ability and impact as a player.
Frequently changing formation
Sir Alex has constantly changed his formation in the past few seasons. While 4-4-2 is his preferred formation for league games, 4-3-3 and 4-4-1-1 were both used in the big matches last season. The versatility of the players allows him to do that. Even the new signings of Jones and Young have been made keeping this fact in mind. Scholes too could play in a number of roles. Hence the replacement would be expected to be able to play in different types of formations too.
Era of specialization
Scholes was the complete midfielder and hence was ideally suited to the 4-4-2 system that Sir Alex would deploy for most of the matches throughout the year. His midfield partner for a decade, Roy Keane could boast of an entire arsenal of attributes, which the current central midfielders of United do not possess. Fletcher, Giggs, Anderson and Gibson all possess a well-rounded game tailored to suit United’s needs.
Outside the EPL however, it is the age of specialization. With a 3 man central midfield being deployed by most teams, the players have specific roles like deep playing playmaker, destroyer or trequartista. Mesut Ozil, who was heavily linked with United last season would not be suited to a 2 man central midfield as in a 4-2-3-1 formation he is rarely assigned any defensive responsibilities. Kaka similarly, would not be able to play his natural game. Both players would not have the discipline, in terms of tracking back and helping the defense to be able to play in a 4-4-2.
Sneijder vs Modric
With Nasri reportedly about to join Man City, it looks like Sir Alex will choose between Modric and Sneijder to take over the reigns of United’s midfield. Both players are technically gifted, fantastic passers and can control the game, something United desperately need. However, the formation will be dictated by which player is signed. Both players would fit perfectly in the central midfield in a 4-4-2 but it is in the bigger matches where United will probably employ a 4-4-1-1 that the new player’s position will be tested.
Modric is better suited to the deep-lying playmaker role in the double pivot instead of the attacking midfield role because he has never been known to have an eye for goal. Sneijder on the other hand would be more suited to play behind the lone striker.
One might argue that Sneijder can play in the double pivot as he played as a defensive midfielder for Ajax; however, he became a world-class player in the attacking midfield role for Inter and Netherlands. So shunting perhaps the best attacking midfielder in the world out of his preferred position and making him adjust to a new one may not be very sensible. Also, it is speculated that one of the reasons he may leave Inter is because Gasperini’s 3-4-3 would require him to play in a more defensive role in midfield. So he may obviously not be very pleased with the prospects of playing a deeper role.
Carrick, in the past couple of seasons has shown a distinct preference to play short square passes out to the wingers instead of playing more adventurous long balls forward. Also the general opinion is that he is a great player when United are in control but is unable to control the game when the midfield is being overrun. Modric, hence, would be a great player to have as he can control the pace of the game from deep and always works hard to help his defenders. Sneijder on the other hand would give United what they have been desperately lacking since Scholes had his knee operation – goals from midfield.
There are other options too. Many have suggested that Wayne Rooney can fill the void in midfield that Scholes’s retirement has created, a feeling that is prompted by a string of great performances in a withdrawn role behind the striker towards the end of last season. He may not have Modric’s first touch and control or Iniesta’s ability to glide his way through a packed midfield, but Rooney has shown that he certainly can make the killer pass if given time on the ball. Young too some suggest, may find himself in a central role if required. Apart from that many tip Tom Cleverley for greatness at the club but it may be too early for the 21 year old.
In Gary Neville’s opinion, “The success never stops. The manager will always replace players but never like-for-like, it will always be a different way of things and I think that will happen this time.” Sir Alex Ferguson has shown the ability to continuously change his formation based on the players available. The traditional 4-4-2 gave way to a more lopsided 4-4-2 where Ronaldo played more as a forward than a winger and last season he adopted a 4-4-1-1 to accommodate the fast emerging Chicharito. Whether Sir Alex brings in a new player who fits perfectly into the scheme of things or will he change his formation again is the open question now.