With Manchester United’s bid for Wesley Sneijder seemingly run aground on the financial rocks Sir Alex Ferguson has admitted this week that the Reds may not bring in a direct replacement for Paul Scholes. With United’s sights aimed high, Ferguson told press gathered on the club’s US tour that only the very best will do for United. Not for the first time this summer supporters’ hopes that a high-class central midfielder will arrive at Old Trafford may have been dashed.
On a similar track, midfielder Michael Carrick believes that replacing Scholes is a shared responsibility among the players that remain at Old Trafford. It is, of course, an impossible task and not simply because in Anderson, Carrick and Darren Fletcher United does not possess the requisite quality to replace Scholes. Moreover, numbers are down after Scholes’ retirement, Owen Hargreaves’ release and Darron Gibson’s impending sale.
“I think losing a player like Paul is a big loss – he brings so much to the team,” admitted Carrick.
“He’s a world-class player. Scholesy was just brilliant – how he played the game, how he was off the pitch. He was loved by everyone. None of the lads have a bad word for him. He came in, did the business and then headed off again. He had genius ability that you can’t really teach.
“You have to compensate in other ways. We’ve done that in the past – we lost Cristiano Ronaldo a few years ago and people didn’t think we’d get over it. Different players step up – maybe not one player but we share the responsibility. I feel there’s more responsibility as you get older, too. Experience counts for a lot. I just want to improve again and have a good season.”
Nice words of course but essentially empty. After all history indicates that Carrick, while improving over the past 12 months, will remain passive in the face of the highest competition. The Geordie’s qualities are many – and still admired at Old Trafford – but Scholes’ replacement he is not.
Meanwhile, Anderson, of whom many supporters retain high hopes, has achieved little of note in four years at the club. Aged just 22 the Brazilian is arguably far from his peak; yet years into a disappointing career in England to boot. The man Ferguson identified as Scholes’ heir apparent is arguably fortunate to remain at the and benefiting from Ferguson’s considerable patience with players he believes may come good.
Then there is Fletcher, whose 2010/11 campaign was spoilt by a mystery virus that effectively ended the Scot’s season 12 matches early. That the Scotland captain is not fit enough to join United on tour says much, leaving Ferguson with just two recognised central midfielders in the States plus 38-year-old Ryan Giggs.
Yet the United manager has once again sought to cool talk of Dutchman Sneijder joining the club this summer, with Internazionale reportedly asking for £35 million and the player seeking wages over £200,000 per week. The impasse leaves United looking at alternatives, with the club now dismissing the notion that Samir Nasri will join after Arsenal simply ignored a £20 million bid.
“Forget it. We are looking at some things but I am not so sure Sneijder will be easy to get,” Ferguson said.
“I could pick three or four players to come in but they wouldn’t be good enough for us so there is no point. I would be happy enough [with no new signings]. Maybe I am a bit overloaded in the strikers’ positions. The alternatives in midfield are not nearly as strong. But I have a good squad.”
It is pointed then that Ferguson chose to praise young Tom Cleverley as “an intelligent modern-day footballer,” with the 21-year-old joining the United squad, along with Danny Welbeck, at Nike’s headquarters in Oregon this week.
“Welbeck’s an England international, an exceptional talent. Cleverley will play for England. His movement and understanding of space is really good for a young player. We are happy both of them will stay with us. Because of the experience they have had, keeping them now benefits us.”
Although Stuart Pearce used Cleverley mainly in wide positions for England Under-21 team this summer – as did Wigan Athletic last season – many believe that the youngster has the natural talent to compete centrally. It is clearly a huge ask for the Basingstoke-born midfielder, who scored four in 25 appearances for the Latics, to step into Scholes’ shoes with immediate effect.
Could the answer to Ferguson’s dilemma lie elsewhere? Certainly United’s failure to add proven quality in central midfield has led many – supporters included – to speculate that Wayne Rooney could drop even deeper in the coming season, away from the ‘number 10’ position occupied to such great effect over the past six months. It’s a notion dismissed by Ferguson, who admirers the Scouser’s on-the-field intelligence but is unlikely to deploy the former Evertonian in a more limiting central midfield role.
“Wayne could play centre-midfield, but not the way that Scholesy played it. They’re too different,” added the 69-year-old United boss.
“The way Wayne would play as opposed to Scholesy is that he would be more dynamic and all over the place, using his energy to run everywhere, challenge and hit those cross-field passes that he’s terrific at. Scholes was more calculated. He always had that control about him, controlling the speed and pace of a game, which is pretty difficult to do. He was an absolute one-off.
“You can’t replace players like that. You hope you can get something approaching it, but you’ll never replace Scholes. We’re all searching for that. Everybody is searching for the special player who makes the difference to his team.”
Indeed, this summer has left Ferguson facing the very real prospect of entering the new season with solely Anderson, Carrick and Fletcher as the Scot’s front-line central midfielders. It’s a sobering thought despite Carrick’s promise to exert greater influence in the coming season. One in which the Geordie’s shared responsibility is unlikely to bring much comfort.