The loss of arguably the greatest player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo, was a blow Manchester United was always going to struggle to overcome. The Portuguese winger left a void, especially in the goals column. Whilst strikers come and go, Ronaldo’s goals masked what United is really missing – a true goalscoring midfielder – Paul Scholes.
United fans are big on facts. Scholes’ record alone speaks volume for how effective the former-England international was in his heyday. In 2002/2003 the midfielder managed a staggering 20. While in the proceeding two seasons Scholes’ tally still surpassed 10 in each campaign.
This is no longer the case, which is attributable to the decline to the player’s ever-diminishing physical ability. It’s an understandable part of the Scholes’ advancing years.
While United’s squad has a number of midfielders, and Scholes remains a great player for United on occasion, an heir has never been found.
The high expectations placed on Anderson, as a free-scoring player, have not been realised. Perhaps because of, not despite, his newfound defensive role.
Meanwhile, Fletcher, for all his guile and seemingly tireless running, cannot contribute 15 goals a season. The same is true of Carrick, who has never – and most likely will never – own the goal-scoring touch. It’s a deficiency that will cost the former-Tottenham midfielder a seat on the plane to South Africa this summer.
The same is true of Park Ji-Sung, while the sight of Owen Hargreaves on the football pitch is almost as elusive as a Liverpool Premier League title. Nani, meanwhile, has become a victim of his own ambition. The player’s move to United stifled his development and he is likely to leave.
Then there are other midfielders such as Antonio Valencia and Gabriel Obertan, who are improving with each fixture, but yet to unduly trouble the opposition net.
The same cannot be said of United’s closest rivals, each of whom possesses midfielders capable of scoring. Players who get ahead of the ball in support of the attack.
Liverpool has Steven Gerrard, while any one of Chelsea’s midfielders is capable of scoring. Arsenal has Cesc Fabregas, City boast Stephen Ireland and even Blackburn can call upon David Dunn.
United’s crunch match at Chelsea illustrated the shortcomings in the squad. Despite United’s performance, Petr Cech never looked troubled by the away side’s futile long-range attempts. Chelsea seemed happy to offer Ferguson’s side time and space.
What of the future though? A club boasting top-class facilities and a strong academy should have produced more players of Scholes’ ilk in recent years.
Darron Gibson is, perhaps, the closest that fans have seen, and the Irishman’s brief outings in the first team have not been impressive.
The best bet might be Tom Cleverley, on loan at Watford, who has impressed with six goals from midfield this season. Sir Alex Ferguson might not trust the England under-21 international just yet, but his time may come.
However, time waits for no man. Valencia, Obertan and Cleverley must soon realise the potential of their undoubted talent or, inevitably, United will nvest elsewhere.