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United benefiting from Scholes' return

Paul Scholes (Mandatory Credit: Mitchell Gunn-US PRESSWIRE)
Scholes has helped the Red Devils return to the top in the Premier League.
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James Horncastle

James Horncastle is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who specializes in coverage of the European game. His work has been prominently featured in The Guardian, FourFourTwo, and The Blizzard.

   
 

The 5th installment in James Horncastle's month-long series documenting the Battle for Manchester.

 

Retirement. Paul Scholes had grown resigned to it. There wasn’t any single moment that prompted his decision. But upon reflection, the Manchester United midfielder’s substitution during a Champions League group stage match against Rangers at Ibrox on November 24, 2010 brought the realization that, perhaps, it was time to consider hanging up his boots.

“It was just a groin injury, which should have been just a week out,” Scholes told FourFourTwo. “But it ended up being about seven. After that, I could never get any freshness in my legs.”

By his own admission, they’d gone. When Scholes announced his decision a couple of weeks after what seemed to be the last of his then 676 appearances for United in the Champions League final against Barcelona at Wembley, he gave the impression that, while regrettable, it couldn’t be any other way.

“The manager felt I could do 15 or 20 games next season but I just felt the time was right,” he said. “It wasn’t hard to turn him down. I know how my body has felt.”

There was no reason for supporters to believe that they would ever see him in a United shirt again after his testimonial with the New York Cosmos. Physically and mentally jaded, and unprepared to be a bit-part player, Scholes reluctantly faded into the background, accepting a role as part of the club’s backroom staff.

With that in mind, his competitive return to action for United’s FA Cup third round tie with Manchester City was a surprise.

“It was a bit of a shock about Scholes,” Wayne Rooney revealed. “We just thought he was coming along to watch the game. We saw him getting changed and someone asked him what he was doing. Then we saw the No 22 shirt with Scholes on the back. That was a bit weird but it was great for us. He is a well-liked lad around the dressing room.”

On reflection, if City’s football development executive Patrick Vieira had said there and then rather than waiting until mid-March to suggest that the move “showed a little bit of weakness” on United’s part, few would have argued with his assessment. Taken aback by the news, his old foe Roy Keane reasoned: “It’s probably worth the gamble to lift the squad.”

PL TITLE RACE:

 
REMAINING FIXTURES
United City
Everton (h) Wolves (a)
City (a) United (h)
Swansea (h) Newcastle (a)
Sunderland (a) QPR (h)
More: Premier League |Standings
 

United went into the second Manchester derby of the season on the back of consecutive defeats at home to Blackburn and at Newcastle. They were three points behind City in the Premier League and looked vulnerable in the days leading up to their visit to the Etihad, where their noisy neighbors were still unbeaten in all competitions.

Lose that game and talk of a definitive shift in power from United to City would have been inevitable considering the champions had already been humiliated 6-1 by their rivals at Old Trafford in October. This had the potential to be a symbolic occasion. By bringing back Scholes, even if it had been “in the offing for weeks,” United were said to be dwelling in the past. City were the future.

The outcome didn’t do much to discourage that sentiment. While United won 3-2, City were claiming to be the “moral winners” of the encounter. Reduced to 10 men after 12 minutes and already 3-0 down at half-time, they showed real character to come back and make a fist of it. “We lost but in our heads we won,” insisted City full-back Micah Richards.

The ‘Scholes effect’ did have a significant bearing on the game, but not in the way Ferguson had probably foreseen. Four minutes after coming on, he gave the ball away to James Milner and was punished for it with the ruthlessness people had come to expect from City in the first half of the season. His cross found Sergio Agüero in the box and while the striker needed two bites of the cherry he scored his side’s second goal to set up a nervy finish to the match. Nostalgia for Scholes meant that many chose to excuse him of this mistake, putting it down, quite understandably, to rustiness. After all, it hadn’t cost United the game. Why not instead focus on how he had completed 97% of his passes?

Old boy! Scholes scores United's first goal against Bolton.(Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Still, even amid the goodwill surrounding his return and Ferguson’s insistence that he had kept himself in “great shape,” there were doubts that he could make a decisive and immediate impact on the title race. That, of course, began to change when he opened the scoring in United’s 3-0 win over Bolton a week later. Since then, they have won 11 of their 12 Premier League matches, overseeing a 13-point swing in their favor at the top of the table.

The end justifies the means.

“If it’s desperation bringing the best midfielder in Britain back for the last 20 years then I think we can accept that,” Ferguson bristled. Although it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the coach went cap in hand to beg Scholes to change his mind, the line from the player is that, on the contrary, it was entirely his own decision.

“The coaching was OK but it wasn’t like playing,” he said. “I was still coming in every day and seeing players. It was difficult to adjust, I admit that. I really missed the playing side up until Christmas, when I went to see the manager.”

Even if Ferguson did reach out to Scholes, it has been completely validated by the part he has since played in what looks likely to be United’s 20th league championship. They needed someone capable of running a game and as Ferguson and Scholes’s mentor Eric Harrison have said, his only peers in that regard are Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Andrea Pirlo.

Quantifying the scale of Scholes’s influence is difficult, but Opta stats show that there has been a marked improvement in United’s ability to control matches since his return. For instance, their pass completion rate has risen from sixth to first in the Premier League and their average possession has gone up from 55.7% to 61.3%.

Paul Scholes celebrates scoring against QPR. (Photo by Jon Super/AP Images)

“Paul can dictate the tempo and rhythm of our game very well,” the United boss explained. “He has the experience which helps him do that and has a terrific football brain.”

Reunited with their conductor, United might not have always been on song in recent weeks, but they haven’t missed a beat either thanks in no small part to Scholes, who scored in their 2-0 win against QPR at the weekend. That’s why in all likelihood they’ll be listening to “We are the Champions” again come the end of this season.

For City’s sake, they’ll be hoping to be spared of hearing United fans chant its verses at the derby on April 30.

James Horncastle is a European soccer writer with articles published in The Blizzard, Champions magazine and FourFourTwo.

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