With more than 2000 matches for Manchester United there is a safe place in the pantheon of club greats for Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville. Now in the twilight of glorious careers, the time has come for Sir Alex Ferguson to trust in new blood with defeats to Bayern Munich and Chelsea demonstrating the inconsistencies of age.
United has offered each of the triumvirate a new deal, with Giggs already signed up, Neville certain to put pen to paper and Scholes still holding an internal debate. Each deserves the new contract; not out of sentiment but because of the very real contribution they can make to United’s campaign next season.
Indeed, Giggs’ sparkling performances in the early part of the season simply continued the Welshman’s Player of the Season form during the 2008/9 campaign. The winger’s broken arm, sustained against Aston Villa in February, came at an inconvenient time for both player and club.
Meanwhile, Neville’s return to form for United at 35 years of age is a minor miracle. Never blessed with awe-inspiring talent, Neville’s determination has enabled 15 years at the very top. Yet two years of ankle and calf injuries threaten to curtail the Bury-born player’s time at the club.
Not so, and Neville has earned praise for not only for making a comeback of any kind but forcing his way into the team when many thought the task impossible.
Then there is Scholes whose ability to pass the ball at 16 years of age brought the flame-haired midfielder to England manager Glenn Hoddle’s attention before he had made his United début. Nearly two decades on and Scholes has successfully passed more balls in the Premier League this season than any other player. He isn’t even picked every week.
But while each has produced compelling performances at times this season the ravages of age has dulled the trio’s consistency. While Giggs’ stand-out performances are now rarely on the wing, Neville is increasingly vulnerable to opponent’s physicality and Scholes blows either hot or cold with little in between.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to push Giggs wide and Ji-Sung Park inside against Chelsea on Saturday produced a tepid performance from the Welshman with Paulo Ferreira – no first choice at Chelsea – consistently quicker to the ball.
Similarly Neville was unable to doing anything about Florent Malouda’s surging run for the Londoners’ opening goal at Old Trafford. While Darren Flecher chased, Neville’s static response was telling. The full-back’s determination remains undimmed but he is no longer an athlete able to compete at the highest level.
Scholes meanwhile, still the finest passer of the ball on the planet save for Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez and Andrea Iniesta, no longer has the legs to keep up with dynamic opponents. Restricted to an increasingly small area of the pitch, Scholes is still wonderful given time and space.
Yet against the best opposition Ferguson normally deploys the ginger midfielder in a defensive role exposing his weaknesses and limiting the player to that of a quarter-back hitting long diagonal passes.
Exposed against Chelsea on Saturday, Scholes and Neville also performed poorly in United’s defeat to Bayern Munich last week. None of the trio is likely to start against Munich on Wednesday night.
Ferguson though isn’t continuing to squeeze the last drop of blood from this stone out of sentimentality: United needs the trio. Nani’s inconsistency, Anderson’s failure to mature and Rafael’s injury troubles means that the 84 games played between the three is far more than expected at the start of the campaign.
But fair warning has been given not only of the trio’s decline but the inability of United’s younger talent to reach the required standard fast enough.
If United cannot rely on more than 15 games per man next year surely it is time for Ferguson to make a leap of faith when it comes to Nani and Rafael or move on to other players. Time waits for nobody in elite sport.
The same can also be said of Anderson when the Brazilian returns from long-term knee trouble next Christmas. United needs an attacking midfielder. If the youngster isn’t up to it by now, a dip into the transfer market beckons.
That is the crux. With United’s bank account barren the manager can spend only more debt to revitalise the squad.
Time will tell if this inquest is held once again in a year’s time.