Replacing Scholes – Don’t Expect Any Help From Home!

I made the case in a recent post that United’s performances thus far this season indicate that we’re still too reliant on Paul Scholes, a 36-year-old, to pull the strings in midfield and get the team playing like one that is capable of crafting out goal scoring opportunities. If we’re lining up in our default 4-4-2 without Scholes in there, there’s a good chance that a night of misplaced passes and sloppy first-touches is about to ensue.

I made the case in a recent post that United’s performances thus far this season indicate that we’re still too reliant on Paul Scholes, a 36-year-old, to pull the strings in midfield and get the team playing like one that is capable of crafting out goal scoring opportunities. If we’re lining up in our default 4-4-2 without Scholes in there, there’s a good chance that a night of misplaced passes and sloppy first-touches is about to ensue.

As such Michael Carrick has taken a lot of stick, with many thinking that he should be the one to take up this playmaker mantle. I’ve defended Carrick before and will continue to do so. Carrick isn’t that type of player; he’s neither a “box-to-box” player in the Fletcher mould, nor is he a deep-lying playmaker in the Xavi or Renaissance Scholes mould. He’s your modern midfielder (link here), and as such thrives in more modern formations.

Nothing is more indicative of this than by comparing his performance against City in the derby (link here) to that against Aston Villa the following game (link here). Against City, in a midfield three with Scholes and Fletcher, he thrived, making 7 interceptions and 59 of 61 passes, many of which were positive and attacking. Against Villa, where he had more defensive duties, he struggled. Carrick just isn’t creative enough or sufficiently defensively driven to work effectively as a midfielder in a 4-4-2.

So given United’s failure in signing Ozil (who seemed to have his heart set on Real) or Sneijder (who decided to sign a new deal at Inter, despite Rafa Benitez being the manager), and coupled with our inability to splash out on big name players, it appears we may have to look amongst the home-grown talent in order to find our new playmaker. Given the English approach to football, this isn’t going to be easy.

Tom Williams, of the superb Football Further (link here), has run a recent series of interviews (link here) with several football coaches in order to highlight the flaws and deficiencies present in contemporary English coaching methods. For the last few years many have lambasted the technical deficiency of English players compared to their foreign counterparts, but the problem is much more complex and runs much deeper than that. The issues are tactical and psychological as well. To take a few quotes from the interviews that affirm this claim:

Children here just do not seek to keep the ball as well as their continental cousins. The reasons proposed for this are as interesting as they are varied. But, essentially, it seems to boil down to the fact that keeping the ball and playing short, simple passes is boring and ‘uncool’. There is a general desire for kids to ‘be the hero’ – to burst forward and try to score that wonder goal rather than keep it simple and invite others into play, and the on-off determination to say ‘I know best’ and foolishly ‘go against the grain’ with what the coach is attempting to teach. While seen as relatively harmless at such a young age, it sets a precedent for the future and it is considered one of the greatest coaching challenges to change that mentality.”

“The odds are stacked so high against young goalkeepers and in favour of attackers, that the rational strategy for a strong player is always to hit a high shot from wherever they happen to be stood on the pitch. By removing the constraints on these types of actions in the game we also remove many of the elements of excitement. Small-sided games reintroduce those constraints and so force players to make the decisions and pull off the techniques that will continue to serve them as they progress through the age groups and into the full version of the game. There is a slow shift amongst grassroots coaches towards acknowledging that players need to learn how to achieve ‘outcomes to football situations’ rather than the more simplistic ‘results’. I hope this is an idea that gains wider acceptance in the coaching community.”

“In England a similarly sized town might have 10 competing junior clubs. This necessarily waters down the quality of facilities on offer and means the stronger players are invariably split across the teams. In footballing terms this means that all the teams play on poor playing surfaces instead of a high-quality shared pitch. It also means all the best players are stationed permanently in either centre midfield or up front, where they can score lots of goals against inferior opposition and afford the coach victory over their ‘local rivals’. I’d like to see all the most talented players grouped together so that we have junior grassroots teams in which the centre-halves can play out from the back, the full-backs can carry the ball up the pitch and so on. If we had either more direction from the top or more consensus at the bottom of the football hierarchy then we might finally start to see a different, more fluent, style of play emerging”

I’ve touched on this issue before (link here) regarding this mindless, “passionate” approach that England adopt, how they prioritise the wrong attributes in footballers, and how United must avoid this. Because as Simon Barnes of The Times purports (link here – subscription required), it’s not that we English don’t like flair, it’s that, when an Englishman possesses such virtues, …we suspect that there is something wrong with the possessor…flair becomes a dangerous aberration, a monstrous self-indulgence, something terribly dangerous and untrustworthy. There’s something not quite right about an Englishman with flair.”

But do not fear, times are not as troubled as is being made out, at least for United anyway. Because the third interviewee of the aforementioned Football Further articles, Pavl Williams, is currently working with youngsters aged 6-16 at United’s Carrington training centre. Although I’m sure other Premiership clubs can claim such similarly cultured coaches on their roster, at least we’ve got the wise old words of ours on paper! And who knows, with the likes of Ravel Morrison and Tom Lawrence coming through at United, Jack Wilshere at Arsenal, Jonjo Shelvey at Liverpool and Joshua McEachran at Chelsea, perhaps the times are already changing. But will one of these be a player like Paul Scholes? I seriously doubt it. England will never produce another Paul Scholes.

But as pointed out by James Goyder of The Independent (link here), let’s not become obsessed with youth. “There is an important distinction between potential and ability which football is in danger of losing sight of. Players with potential might offer clubs the greatest margin for profit but it is players with ability who win trophies…youth is no substitute for experience and younger does not necessarily mean better.”

And one player that instantly springs to mind as being capable of filling the Paul Scholes void is Bastian Schweinsteiger. Aged 26, he’d be a great fit for United. Able to play as a deep-lying playmaker in a 4-4-2 or an attacking midfielder 4-3-3, he could provide the perfect platform on which United can build a versatile attacking unit for years to come.

What do you think? Is Carrick surplus to requirements? Can England ever produce another Paul Scholes? Is Schweinsteiger the right man for United? Have your say.

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  • Thanks a lot!

    Good to hear that you know someone at a top club who is also aware from this, I feel that the big teams need to lead the way with changes to our coahing with a top-to-bottom approachh.

    I should have something else on here in the next day or two touching again on why it may be increasingly difficult to produce another Paul Scholes. It’s a case of doubt it, but you never know!

  • There’s nothing wrong with examining why our continental cousins seem to develop youth better than we do, it may bring a change for the best but ultimately the buck stops if there isn’t the raw talent in the first place. I knew Paul when he was a kid and he had raw talent, he was basically “good at football” this is something you just cannot teach, you either have it or you don’t!

  • Really liked this, well written and I totally agree especially with the part discussing English players and flair.

    Got a pal who coaches for Spurs academy teams and he tells me the exact same thing but with the national team performing so badly and this being highlighted more than ever it may prompt a change.

    There will never be another Paul Scholes but the country owes it to itself to at least try and replicate one of if not the finest football player it has ever produced.

  • @I think I’ve found you a genius. Thanks for your comments, great to hear from someone who knew Paul when he was a kid! As I said before, I should have something on here in the next day or two looking at this issue in more depth, i.e., how great players come to be. Look forward to your input then as well!

    @Arun: Agree on the Morrison point, from what I’ve heard he seems to be more of a Ronaldo (i.e. plays all across the front) than a playmaker sort. Yeah I’d really love Bastian at United, I think he’d give us so many options with regards to formation and tactics, but from what I’ve heard, the chances of us signing him are still pretty low. Damn shame.

  • Liked the article and I have been saying the same for a while.
    The fact that England have NEVER replaced Scholes and every manager since he retired has tried to get him to change his mind emphasises the point!.
    The Schweinsteiger situation is one Utd HAVE to do something about i.e. GET HIM as he would give us a platform similar to Scholes but also a presence which we are badly lacking in that department.
    He has a great footballing brain in so far that he was converted to a CM from RM and can play in a defensive and attacking position through the middle while possessing a calm but strong mentality.
    Basically a Gerrard with brains!!!
    With regards to youngsters, alot will also depend on the club they are with in terms of protection from the media etc, as as soon as they have a different approach to others they are hailed as world class and then (and its not their fault) they take their eye of the ball, unlike say spanish players.
    However I do feel that there are good technically gifted youngsters coming through but how many of them will fulfill the potential who knows, and furthermore will that said ability be drummed out of them by the time they reach 1st team status.

  • i like the looks of Josh McEachran and Jack Wilshere. There is a continental style about them, very Europeanized concept and if they are to be treated proper footballers in this country they can come good. Ravel Morrison is in different mould i think, brings a lot of versatility to the team attack with his pace and ability on the ball. but, as you said, any of them haven’t shown any signs of replacing Paul Scholes who i see as the best English midfield talent since Bob Charlton. In any other country he would’ve played in HIS position and the team would’ve built around HIM. There’s no point in discussing how badly England treated a talent of that magnitude like that abysmal fashion, i guess.
    Agree with the logic behind bringing Bastian to United. though he started playing football at the centre of midfield very late in his career, his adaptability to any position/role in CM is commendable. He did play as a regista, remained as the fulcrum of every attacking play and van Gaal used this as the main factor behind Bayern’s success last year. Though it has to be said that there were always players surrounding him to do the so called dirty work. for Germany he played an entirely different role, was asked to play as the deep lying play maker, to mark opposition players occasionally (v Messi Arg) and he did everything almost perfectly. There’s no reason he can’t be a success at United and if there’s any player capable of replacing Scholes to an extend in football world, Bastian is one of them (Xavi is not going anywhere and Pirlo’s past it). Definitely worth a punt in next summer. Fergie, sign him up!

  • Thanks Calvo. Yeah it’s certainly an issue that people (such as yourself) have been talking about for a while, but good news is, as highlighted by Chudi above, with each mediocre England performance it gains more and more credibility and coverage. If everyone just read a book by Jonathan Wilson it would all be sorted! People think it goes back to the 6-3 demolition inflicted by Hungary in 1953. The rots been there even before then!

    Gerrard with brains, I like that. I also see Schweinsteiger as being like Carrick but with defensive ability (as mentioned by Arun, see the job he did on Messi in the World Cup).

    I agree, I don’t think the issue is technical anymore. I put the question to Gab Marcotti on his webchat on The Times, and he thinks, and many would agree, it’s more an issue of technical discipline and knowledge. When you’ve got Harry Redknapp coming out and saying “Tactics don’t matter that much”, it doesn’t help. Now I’m sure he knows 100 times more than me about football, but come on, tactics don’t matter? Tell that to Otto Rehhagel.

  • Cheers Tom, I can agree that its down to technical discipline and knowledge.
    Which unsurprisingly english players lack.
    And it is equally surprising that a manager can come out and say that “tactics dont matter that much”, as they obviously do,look at Mourinho,Guardiola,Van Gaal,Hiddink,Fergie,even Bentinez (for gods sake!) all successful managers and all have had to rely on tactics that enabled them to not only compete but also win trophies (soo as much as i like arry-he is not as trophy-successful as them!!), so the evidence is that tactics ARE equally fundamental as ability and its up to everyone involved in english football to not only nuture talent and letting that talent blossom with freeness but to also harness the talent with technical awareness and discipline.
    P.S. as for the “I also see Schweinsteiger as being like Carrick but with defensive ability (as mentioned by Arun, see the job he did on Messi in the World Cup).”…i would also add that Bastian has a greater mentality and aura about him compared to Carrick and even a greater self belief which transpires from him throughout the whole team, hence why a player like messi was rather subdued compared to if it was Carrick!

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