It is with some distain, if not total consternation, that I observe the clichéd comments of the media, rival fans, and (most of all) my fellow Manchester United fans in relation to the ‘old guard’ at Old Trafford!
I could paraphrase an endless list of comments across an endless list of articles and blog contributions but let me quote a comment by the BBC’s chief sports writer, Phil McNulty, in his review of the season this week:
“once again we have to ask how much more Ferguson can dredge out of the old reliables such as Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.”
And the replies to such observations arrive quick and fast, many suggesting that it will be impossible for Utd to replace Neville, Scholes and Giggs when the time comes.
It’s just about then that I pour myself a glass of wine, take a deep draught, and again wonder whether I live in a different parallel universe to the rest.
But before I get into the meat of my point let me first set some background. Sir Alex Ferguson can be accused of many things but lack of loyalty is not one of them, and when it comes to loyalty he’s totally black and white. Loyalty has always been a two-way street for Ferguson (no argument with that)…….you cross him at your peril…..a lesson learnt the hard way by the likes of McGrath, Sharpe, Stam, Beckham, Van Nistelrooy and even Keane over the years. You’re either in or you’re out with Sir Alex and there are no half measures.
At times he has taken on the world in support of a player (Cantona) and been richly rewarded in return, and for those ‘less troublesome’ souls who have devoted an entire career to the cause Fergie’s loyalty and support is absolute.
The question is whether this is a vice or a virtue, or, more poignantly, when does that virtue actually become a vice?
The last time I soul searched on this issue was in the 2005/6 season. United were heading for a 3rd successive year without the title and Keane was very much in decline. Club captain, but hampered by injury and age, I wondered whether Fergie would ever bite the bullet and move on. In the end, Roy did the honourable thing and spat the dummy, making his departure on his own terms and for the greater good of all. Don’t get me wrong, Keane was one of the all time greats to grace the Old Trafford pitch but he had the nous to call time… at the right time (just)… which is typical of the pragmatist that Keane is.
Everyone moved on, Fergie re-shuffled and 3 titles in a row landed on his doorstep. Carrick arrived amidst a wave of controversy over his fee and, while he is no Roy Keane and never will be, he provided a piece of the jigsaw that once again provided Ferguson and his team with a relatively settled “middle 4”. It was the catalyst (along with the emergence of Ronaldo as a major force) for further decorating one of the most impressive CVs in football management history, and three years of plenty followed.
Now, football commentators and fans are a fickle bunch, none more so than this one, who change their minds daily (never mind weekly or even monthly). As Fergie’s team mounted an assault on six trophies last season, somewhere around the New Year the scribes were suggesting that they would succeed on all fronts and questioning whether this was the ‘great man’s’ best ever squad.
But a season on from all of that, with Ronaldo now departed and Utd failing to win the title for a 4th time (by just a single point), decline is on the agenda, the squad needs major investment (according to many) and the imminent departure of the ‘old guard’ is a major worry!
All of which brings me back to my main point. Let me preface this by acknowledging that as the 3 most decorated players in the history of the Premier League, Neville, Scholes and Giggs, are true legends of the game and will rightfully take their place in the ‘hall of fame’….never to be forgotten!
But time and tide waits on no man and right now, if not for some time now…..if I may be sacrilegious…can I suggest that they are (have been) more of a liability than an asset?
To support this claim I must firstly return to my musings at the start of the season just finished. My greatest wish was that Fergie would somehow ‘find’ a settled midfield unit….get to the point where Utd had a recognised ‘best’ central four. To that end my hope was that Anderson would be given the chance to claim the AM role, that Nani would finally emerge and that Hargreaves would return from injury.
But most of all I wished that Ferguson would forsake his endless rotation of 8 or 9 midfield players with the inevitable consequence of lack of continuity and the lack of team understanding that that brings with it. And to support my aspiration, it went without saying that Scholes and Giggs should be given a back seat……left to lend their experience in the dressing room to the younger players, to come off the bench occasionally, and to play a part in some of the cup competitions.
Utd kicked-off the season against Birmingham and followed that up with the away trip to Burnley…and Sir Alex changed his entire ‘middle’ 4 for the Burnley game (in fact he rotated 5 of the front 6). I instantly knew the game was up and resigned myself to another season of ‘guess the line-up’, knowing in my heart that no team ever achieves greatness with a question mark over what is it’s best 11 (or at least best 14).
Giggs started 20 PL games for Utd last season, Scholes 24 and Neville 15. Not huge numbers but that’s exactly the point. Too much a case of players on the way out not being left out and players who should be brought through not being left in!
Let me address Gary Neville first. Absent for the best part of 2 seasons through injury, Gary probably played more games than he would have this season due to injuries to others. While truly awful in some of his early season performances, in fairness, he put in some decent shifts in the 2nd half and deserves credit for that.
But let’s be crystal clear on this one. Neville is now 4th choice RB at Old Trafford, behind Rafael, Brown and O’Shea. If he walked out the door tomorrow it wouldn’t cause the slightest blip on the future achievement of the club……so let’s lay that one to rest. He’s long since been replaced. Next!
The case of Giggs and Scholes is more complicated, but only relatively so. The two had contrasting seasons. Giggs had some good performances in the first half of the season but, for my money, was mostly missing in the 2nd half. For Scholes it was the reverse, he seemed to come to life from January on. But even given that, there’s still a problem to my mind and it’s this. For every decent game Giggs and Scholes have, they have one average one and one poor one. You just can’t rely on that, it’s a crap shoot, and you better believe that it comes at a cost!
A good example is Liverpool away last season. Fergie selected a midfield of Carrick, Scholes, Giggs and Valencia. A ‘backs to the wall’ game for Liverpool and a guaranteed battle! I saw the line-up and winced, and so it proved. They just don’t have the legs for a high tempo battle anymore.
But the main problem is Ferguson’s insistence on including them so often. It retards the emergence of the next generation, Anderson in particular; it possibly undermines the confidence of players like Carrick, whose form collapsed in the latter part of the season and it definitely undermines any chance of getting to a point of having a settled midfield unit which, to my mind at least, is fundamental to creating any great team.
So when, by degree, I learnt that all three in question had signed 1 year extensions to their contracts I was far from happy. I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t have been given those extensions, far from it. Let them continue to influence the younger players, bring some experience to the bench and play in some cup games …….exactly my prescription for last season.
But I just know that Fergie won’t approach it this way. He’ll continue to overplay this trio of aging greats; continue to undermine the game time and by extension the confidence of others, and continue to over rotate and detract from any possibility of Utd establishing a quality midfield unit.
So what would I do? Assuming Hargreaves can get back to his former level, I’d have Hargreaves, Fletcher, Anderson and one quality CM purchase, along with Nani and Valencia, as my ‘midfield 6’. By that I mean 4 or 5 (depending on formation) from this 6 as the regular starters.
I’d sell Carrick and have Park, Gibson, Oberton and the emerging Cleverly as the back-up, but only to be used sparingly in the event of injury or to occasionally rest someone (unless of course they impress so much that they can’t be ignored). After that Giggs and Scholes would get a look in, which would mean not very much at all. The “2nd string”, including Giggs and Scholes, to be given game time in the CC and FA Cup.
I understand the criticisms of Utd’s midfield quality in recent times but remain unconvinced that it is down to lack of good players. I’m convinced that it has as much to do with lack of continuity and failure to establish a regular starting line-up. Yes, I know it’s a squad game now and you can’t get anywhere without depth……but there’s a balance between squad depth and not having a first choice (‘best’) team and for two seasons now that balance has been missing from United.
Neville, Scholes and Giggs have long since been replaced at Old Trafford. They owe us nothing more and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
But please Fergie, spare us the death by a thousand cuts! I’ve bled enough already and I can’t face another season with more of the same.
It’s time to move on……time to get the balance back…… and time to get a best 11 again!