In a match dominated by a collection of unsavoury events, the performance of United veteran Paul Scholes slipped under the radar. Indeed, that could be a metaphor for Paul Scholes’ career. For a man blessed with such deft feet and such supreme vision and decorated in countless domestic and European honours, proper recognition has often eluded Scholesy. His unassuming manner on and off the pitch may have contributed to this, he isn’t a playboy footballer like many of his contemporaries, but there is a reason so many professionals hold him in the highest regard. Again, at Old Trafford against Liverpool on Saturday, Scholesy showed exactly why Fergie wanted him back from retirement – and why only last year, Xavi of Barcelona described him as “the best central midfielder I’ve seen in the last 15, 20 years”.
Simply put, Paul Scholes was majestic against Liverpool. I would advise any young midfielder, looking to progress his/her skills, to acquire a DVD of this match and meticulously study Paul Scholes’ performance. It was a masterclass in ball retention and passing. What sets Scholes apart from so many of his contemporaries is his awareness. Indeed, this was evident around the hour-mark in Old Trafford on Saturday as Paul Scholes took control of the football 10 yards in the United half. As he controlled the ball, two Liverpool players stomped on the ground in pursuit of the ginger maestro. The crowd took in a sharp intake of breath and wailed excitedly at Scholes, no doubt screaming the proverbial ‘MAN ON’. But there was no need. Paul Scholes knew. With one swivel he turned from both players and neatly played his pass to Michael Carrick. In this seemingly innocuous moment of play, Paul Scholes showed why he is above mere mortals on the football pitch. His anticipation of events is legendary. It really does seem like he has eyes on the back of his head at times.
Paul Scholes’ awareness finds space and with that space he is free to pass to any player of his choosing. And I mean any player. Scholesy’s range of passing is phenomenal. He doesn’t whack his passes, he caresses them. He does it so quickly as well. He lifts his head and only a split-second later lets fly with a deft touch of that magic right boot. Just watch the flight of the ball in mid-air when Paul Scholes passes it. So straight, so composed, barely shifting its axis. Each of his passes is thoughtful and into space. Paul Scholes doesn’t pass for the sake of passing. On Saturday, Scholesy dictated the tempo of the game with his sweet, cushioned passing. Jay Spearing is young and raw, and Liverpool are missing Lucas Leiva, but Scholesy dominated the Liverpool midfield. He and Michael Carrick have formed a strong midfield partnership that may not be able to out-muscle but are certainly able to out-pass most opponents. Wingers love playing with Paul Scholes as well for his measured passes out to the wide areas of the pitch seem to elude even the most proficient of full-backs. Luis Antonio Valencia is a noted beneficiary of these incisive balls. Scholes’ link-up play is superb, he knows when to pass short, when to pass long and very rarely hits an inaccurate pass. On Saturday around the half-hour mark, Scholes’ intelligent pass to Ryan Giggs on the left wing from a position where so many other players would have blindly shot is indicative of the quality that sets him apart from other midfielders. That pass led to United’s best chance of the first half when the also magnificent Giggs crossed for Scholes who was waiting at the 6 yard box. Scholes’ header was straight at Reina unfortunately. At 5ft 7in, heading was never going to be Paul Scholes’ forté!
Modern football has its fair share of problems, and many of them were on display at Old Trafford on Saturday, but with players like Paul Scholes around, football is always going to be the ‘Beautiful Game’. His comeback may end this year or next year but we can only hope that some of Paul Scholes’ magic has rubbed off on some of the other midfielders plying their trade in the Premier League. For 18 years now, Paul Scholes has been a credit to himself, a credit to Manchester United and a credit to football. There is a reason Zidane referred to him as ‘my toughest opponent…. the complete midfielder’. So let’s enjoy him while we still can. Just don’t ask him to tackle!