Easter is the time of resurrection; a movable period in the Gregorian calendar when followers of the Christian faith celebrate the death and rebirth of a savior. Apt then, perhaps, with Easter just past that Manchester United’s own resurrection this season should be catalysed by the return of a fallen son, Paul Scholes.
Indeed, on Easter Sunday, with United beating Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford and Manchester City losing at Arsenal, the club’s renascence this season was almost complete. Almost. Eight points clear by the day’s end, with just six games remaining, there seemed little City could do to prevent United claiming a 20th domestic title.
Until a Scholes-less United lost in hugely dysfunctional fashion at Wigan Athletic on Wednesday night, of course.
Yet, Scholes’ return to Manchester United in January was, to many an observer – astute or otherwise – a marker for the Glazernomics era. Patrick Vieira’s poorly timed attack two weeks ago has been rightly dismissed as one of the most feeble attempts at late-season ‘mind games’ ever enacted. But the Manchester City executive’s point was reflected by many on both sides of the Manchester divide when first announced in January.
After all, here was Sir Alex Ferguson, robbed of Anderson and Tom Cleverley for the opening months of season, desperately in need of central midfield resources that were never going to be provided in the open market.
It was a viewpoint hard to counter when Ferguson called on 37-year-old Scholes who, despite a mountainous collection of medals over a glorious United career, had only months earlier admitted that his “legs had gone.” Scholes’ performances in the second half of the 2009/10 season were an embarrassing shadow of the player United fans adore, let alone the Ginger Prince’s efficacy during the current campaign.
But the veteran, refreshed and hungry after six months off, has this season been twice the player last seen in Red, both in terms of influence over games of all types and his productivity. In 12 Premier League games Scholes has appeared in this season, the former England international has made 813 passes with a pass completion rate of over 92 per cent.
To put it another way, Scholes has made 813 passes in just 769 minutes of football, with a pass completion rate significantly better than Yaya Toure, Frank Lampard, Mikel Arteta, and Luka Modric. Ryan Giggs, so poor against Wigan on Wednesday, rarely exceeds 75 per cent pass completion.
Passing stats are, of course, just one pointer to performance; good then that the veteran midfielder also has three goals and created 15 chances for his team-mates. More importantly, Scholes’ 12 games have also brought United 11 wins, with points dropped only at Stamford Bridge, where Ferguson’s men fought back to snatch a late draw.
That Scholes did not feature in United’s loss against Wigan at the DW Stadium on Wednesday night says much for the Reds’ disjointed performance in central midfield absent the 37-year-old. His replacement, Giggs, lost possession more than a quarter of the time.
“He has been a massive impact,” said midfielder Michael Carrick, who has partnered Scholes to such great effect post-Christmas.
“We all know how good he is and what he brings to the team on and off the pitch and around the training ground. His performances, to come straight into the team and play like he did was amazing, really, and he’s just carried it on. He’s got a lot of games left in him.”
Scholes is likely to sign up for an extra year at Old Trafford, taking the midfielder past his 38th birthday. The question of how much the player will be used next season is open of course, with Fergie unlikely to be afforded the luxury of one game a week, unless United once again fail in all cup competitions.
After all, Scholes’ worst performances – or least effective to be more accurate – for United in recent years have been against physical opponents who deny time and space with a high tempo pressing game. Scholes, refreshed after six months off, can find space better than almost any other player on the planet. Six months into next season will be a far sterner test of those ageing legs.
But Scholes’ enduring influence will be felt, even if Ferguson is able to bring in new central midfield talent, or Tom Cleverley manages to stay fit. Neither is guaranteed, although it will ask a lot of the veteran to play more than 30 games next season.
“A lot’s been said about him coming back, whether it has been good or bad for us,” adds Rio Ferdinand.
“But you can see in the results we’ve had since he’s been back, the influence he’s had. He’s a fantastic player. Not only on the games you see out here but in training and around the training ground. He’s an example for all the young players at the club.”
One of those younger players – Cleverley – has seen his progress back into the United side blocked by Scholes’ outstanding performances. The 23-year-old has suffered an injury-affected season, but is unlikely to feature heavily during the run-in despite returning to fitness.
Cleverley’s time will come, but the contrast is another interesting side effect of Scholes’ return. After all, Cleverley’s pass-and-move style brought a vibrancy to United in the late summer not seen in Ferguson’s team for some time. Post new year, United’s outstanding results have come through an altogether less exciting ball retention style, based around Scholes dictating the Reds’ tempo.
In a results business Ferguson’s decision to reign in United’s open attacking early season style was a no brainer. But with the word now out that Sir Alex wants to pack his side with pace and attacking verve next season, Scholes’ place in the system is not necessarily obvious.
For the moment though United fans will probably celebrate Scholes’ return with silverware, poor result at Wigan notwithstanding. With the Reds five points clear with as many games to go, the smart money is still on Scholes being an instrumental cog in United’s 20th domestic title triumph.
And whether fans consider Easter a deeply religious experience, or simply an excuse to eat too many chocolate eggs, nothing will taste sweeter than beating City to the Premier League title. For that, supporters will have Scholes’ Second Coming to thank.