January 8th 2012 was the day that opinions were divided amongst Manchester United fans. Some saw it as a psychological tactic by Sir Alex Ferguson to rally his troops before taking on Manchester City in the FA Cup. Many saw it as an act of desperation considering the Sniejder love-in over the summer that amounted to nothing with the lack of any high profile midfielder joining the ranks. Others, myself included, saw it as the best and only option available albeit I was nearly left with egg on my face considering a couple of lack-lustre moments in that game which brought a 10-man Manchester City within touching distance of a draw.
The beginning of the 2011/2012 season started well in a post-Scholes Manchester United, with the side keeping their faith in youth plus experience. A good pre-season which included beating a 7/10 Barcelona side and a customary comeback in the Charity shield was followed by wins against West Brom, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Bolton.
- Surprisingly the toughest test was against West Brom and United were lucky to come away with a win after De Gea's howler. Considering the opposition, a game such as this was not going to trouble United's midfield or make any observers aware of the seed that was planted upon Scholes hanging up his boots.
- Spurs were without Modric, King, Parker and Adebayor so once again, this was not a game that would have proved too tricky. All the goals did come in the second half but a midfield of Livermore and Kranjcar was never really going to trouble anyone at United, especially when their game changers (not including Bale) were not playing.
- Against Arsenal, regardless of the scoreline, cracks did appear. Maybe it was the way that Arsenal play but a team that looked extremely weak; Jenkinson (remember him?) and Traore as full backs and Coquelin in midfield still managed to score two plus miss a penalty. Looking at Arsenal's bench makes even worse reading when they have Giles Sunu and Oguzhan Ozyakup as backup. Proof that this was the best team available yet still managed some twenty shots at goal. Only five less than United.
- The Bolton game I have covered in a previous post but I shall surmise it by saying Bolton didn't deserve to lose 5-0. On the day, the better team won but five goals to no reply was flattering.
- When a real test came along at the Estadio Da Luz against Benfica, it became apparent that the lack of stern opposition had papered over the cracks. A very disappointing performance from United as they couldn't create anything and the lack of a player to dictate the play was discerning to say the least. For if it was not for a wonder strike by Ryan Giggs, this game would have changed the back pages the following morning.
The run up of 23 games from that Benfica game up until the end of 2011 yielded 13 wins, 5 draws and 5 losses. That's not the mark of champions when you dissect it like I will. Discounting cup wins over Leeds and Aldershot, the Chelsea game was a surprise result with a few refereeing decisions going against them. United didn't control the game as you would expect and I haven't seen an end-to-end game like that against a top side that wasn't Arsenal in a while. De Gea had a good game and Chelsea had good chances (the Torres miss included) to put this game away. It's an unfortunate place to be when a midfield that contains Frank Lampard can dominate, and that's what occurred against Fletcher and Anderson. The former clearly not fit and the latter just disappointing once again. This isn't to say that United should have lost as only one side took their chances whereas Chelsea were profligate. In the next few games there were draws against Stoke, Basle and Liverpool a tough win over Otelul Galati and the 6-1 embarrassment against City. In all of those games, there was no one to take the game to the opposition. A midfield shorn of an 8/10 player was becoming clearer and clearer and a lack thereof exposing a weak defence in front of a pubescent goalkeeper.
Going forward from those games, United were embarrassed at home by Crystal Palace, couldn't beat Benfica once again, failed to put away the chances against Newcastle and were outplayed away to Basle. My personal opinion was that it was this game that made Ferguson speak to Scholes and convince him to make a U-turn on his retirement only 6 months prior. In and around those games there were wins against Everton, Sunderland, Swansea , Otelul Galati (another struggle) and Aston Villa. In all of the league games mentioned, they were only won by a single goal. I won't go and say the games were undeserved wins as that's not fair on the efforts of the players. What I will say is that bar the Aston Villa game, United did not dominate as they should and would have done in years gone by. A smash and grab against Everton, an own goal against Sunderland and a tough win over Swansea is not a nice place to be when you are reigning champions.
It seemed like business as usual against Wolves, QPR and Fulham as not one of the teams really tested United with a goals ratio of 11 for and 1 against proving as such. The home game against Wigan contained the controversial sending off of Connor Sammon and the 5-0 win most probably wouldn't have been as such considering United were only 1-0 up until the sending off (on 40 mins). Also of note was that during this time Carrick and Valencia were both in defence due to injuries to Ferdinand, Vidic and Evans. Fitting that in the away tie against the same opposition did United look like the team from November/December, however we shall come to that. Reason being as I need to mention the games against Blackburn at home and Newcastle away. In both of these games United were dominated by their opposition. A weakened team was put out against Blackburn and even on paper it looked wrong. An oversight was Carrick/Jones against Yakubu as he would overpower both with ease, something he actually did. Rafael in midfield was another anomaly considering Anderson and the apparent talent Pogba were warming the bench. De Gea's beginning of the season jitters came back to haunt him and he was subsequently dropped after this match after failing to handle a corner for Blackburn's winner. Another oversight considering his poor build against a powerful side such as Blackburn.
The Newcastle game is the most poignant for many when the midfield was completely outclassed. I'm sure Scholes had already re-signed at this point and he was needed now more than ever. Everything I have said above stems from having a mediocre centre of the midfield. Bereft of such a thing starves the goalscorers in the team and also exposes the back line. It is no secret that United were conceding more shots on goal than anyone in the league and the midfield was nowhere to be seen when it came to Cabaye and Tioté. They dominated the game and United have never cried out more for someone to keep the ball and distribute with aplomb.
Scholes's return was announced prior to kick off for the Manchester City game in the FA Cup which was a timely boost coming off the back of two successive and humiliating defeats. Considering what happened at Old Trafford against the same opposition, this could have been another banana skin on the road to retaining the title. Yet United took the lead before Kompany was sent off. The game finished 3-2 with Scholes entering the fray on 60 minutes and helping United keep their lead; something they had been missing all season. He may have made a few stray passes but you can't put the blame just on one man for allowing Manchester City back into the game.
From this game up until Wednesday's match against Wigan, United won every single game bar 1 that Scholes started in. United only dropped points to Liverpool in the FA Cup when he had already gone off, the 3-3 draw against Chelsea and the fleeting appearance against Ajax. Patrick Vieira called United desperate in recalling Scholes to the side and however effective his appearances have been, desperation is still a word that can be used as long as the end product is victory.
Against Wigan, United haven't looked that bad since Scholes wasn't playing and ironically he wasn't. They couldn't control the game, there was no one to take the ball and make a telling pass. I won't take away from the fact that Wigan were excellent throughout and stifled United in possession. However that happens nearly every week so it is not an excuse. This game reminded me of Basle away. Giggs starting in centre midfield has always worried me and he made a 90+% passing completion player look mediocre. Yes, Carrick had nothing to offer without Scholes by his side and that's testament to the talent that Scholes possesses.
He is the figurative player I have mentioned throughout; the player that plays the 60 yard passes to our wingers, the player that takes it away from Ferdinand/Evans before they make their trademark hollywood pass that never reaches it's intended destination, and more importantly, the player who helps Wayne Rooney get goals. These tasks are not taken care of by any of his understudies and it's a telling problem that Sir Alex Ferguson is living with on a daily basis. There is no way that he can play every game and he was rested against Wigan for the reason of 3 games in a week. It's an issue that will continue to remain when a 37 year old is United's most important current player. The hole he leaves behind when not playing is more of a gorge than a hole and how long can it go on that a team of Manchester United's stature can rely on such a player? You have to remember that he will eventually retire properly and even if he carries on for another year or so, how good will he continue to be? Something needs to be done come the end of the season and whatever that may be this is an awkward situation to be in when there is such a reliance on a player who shouldn't even be playing.