When Patrick Vieira, this week, labelled Paul Scholes’ return to Manchester United “desperate,” the former Arsenal midfield struck a chord. After all, Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to re-recruit the 37-year-old midfielder came just months after Scholes had retired, with the player’s admission that his ‘legs had gone’, firmly front-of-mind.
Almost three months after the midfielder’s return and the Manchester City staffer, along with fans of all persuasions, have been left to ponder their mistake. Indeed, so strong have Scholes’ performances been that the veteran has been instrumental in United’s run of eight wins in the past nine Premier League fixtures.
Vieira has a point, though, in raising the question of – for want of another word – the scale of United’s ambition. Classy though Scholes will always be, the 688-game United player would have found little room in Ferguson’s squad had it not been for the lack of funds for new recruits. Or, indeed, injuries to Tom Cleverley, Anderson and Darren Fletcher.
Scholes may have pushed for a return in January, as is now the customary party line, but there are few leading clubs in Europe that would have planned for a major star’s departure by doing, well, absolutely nothing. By the New Year United needed Scholes more than the player needed a return. It is a line that Vieira followed on Wednesday.
“Paul Scholes is a player that I really love and admire. But for him to come back just shows a little bit of weakness in United, because they had to bring a player back who was 37,” said Vieira on Wednesday.
“I think it shows that, in the next few years, it will be really difficult for United to cope with other teams because, with all the respect I have for Scholes, him coming back shows that they don’t have talent in there to replace him.”
What Vieira didn’t count on, of course, is picking a foe as formidable as Ferguson, whose defence both of Scholes and his own transfer policy was always going to be robust. There is rarely any quarter given by the Scot; certainly never when it comes to questions of United’s weaknesses.
Little surprise then that Ferguson chose his Friday press conference to hit back at Vieira and City manager Roberto Mancini. With just nine games to go in the Premier League title race, a relaxed Ferguson is clearly in his element, ready to work the media ‘mind games’ once again.
“If it’s desperation bringing the best midfielder in Britain back for the last 20 years then I think we can accept that,” said Ferguson.
“I think he (Vieira) was programmed for that. Roberto had a wee dig a couple of weeks back. We’re all going to play our hand that way. There will be plenty of ammunition for that. If you talk about desperation, they played a player the other night (Tevez) who refused to go on the pitch, the manager said he’d never play again and he takes a five-month holiday in Argentina. What is that? Could that come under the description of desperation?”
Indeed, Carlos Tevez’ return to City’s side during Wednesday’s 2-1 victory over Chelsea at Eastlands comes at a delicate time in the race, with United having recently taken the lead the Blues recently held by five points.
Mancini’s willingness not only to countenance the Argentinian striker’s return to the squad, but to play the 28-year-old, says much. After all, here is a player who refused to play for City – or warm up – and then spent an extended unpaid holiday on various golf courses, with the manager loudly proclaiming Tevez would never play for City again.
Pressure does strange things though, and United’s determined erosion of the Blues’ league lead has nerves jangling in east Manchester. Though the Eastland’s crowd departed happy on Wednesday night those fans who bothered to turn up did so after more than a few nervy moments. With Mancini sporting a rabbit-in-the-headlights look in recent weeks the early season bravado has certainly disappeared from Blues both on and off the field-of-play.
So then to Tevez’ return, which may add additional firepower to a goal-shy City side. While the Blues’ home record is impeccable in the league, form on the road has, for some time, threatened to derail Mancini’s attempt to construct a title-winning side.
Yet, the former United striker’s integration back in the Eastland’s fold is unlikely to be universally popular, despite all the right noises. He is, after all, a player who walked away from the cause five months ago.
Moreover, the striker’s return only serves to expose Mancini’s personal weakness; as if the manager is now beholden to his errant star’s wishes. Not long ago Tevez was ostracised, now Mancini, with no little hint of ignominy, publicly praises the striker. It is a large chink in the Italian’s armour that Ferguson is sure to exploit in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, if United does go on to collect a 20th domestic title come May then Scholes will have played an instrumental part in the glory. Few, aside from Ferguson at least, could have predicted just how important the Salford-born midfield would again become to United’s cause. Scholes’ ability to dictate games has shone through in recent weeks, with the flame-haired midfielder repeatedly exceeding a 95 per cent pass completion rate.
“He’s useless,” joked Ferguson of Scholes on Friday.
“What he does is he can dictate the tempo of a match. That experience helps, of course, and he has a terrific football brain which helps him. The amazing thing is he made the decision he made at the time simply because he didn’t want to play 25 games. He wanted to play 50 games, that’s the reason he wanted to retire. I said to him at the time, you can play 25 games no problem but he didn’t want that. He felt he didn’t have enough appreciation but what I was trying to do was look at it sensibly and what you can get out of a 37 year-old.”
Change is always round the corner though. In the coming summer Mancini will likely, and finally, rid himself of the Tevez problem, signing an expensive replacement in the Argentinian’s stead. Menwhile, Ferguson will seek to sign Scholes on for another season in the knowledge that United will not – cannot some might add – replace the veteran with a player of equal quality in the market.
The contrast is stark even if the motivation behind both players return is from a similar concomitance. Ferguson, hamstrung by his paymasters, and Mancini on the precipice of failure, has each sought to gain one final advantage this season. Neither was a move born of certainty.
And with nine games to go, it is not long before either Ferguson or Mancini is proven correct. History and 12 Premier League titles suggest where fans should put their hard-earned money; it is a lesson Vieira would do well to learn.