Paul Scholes stunned a lot of people this season when coming out of retirement to return for Manchester United in January.
His return was deemed a sign of desperation by the club, but Scholes has since proven to be an integral member of the squad in an enthralling Premier League title race. It would hardly be surprising if Scholes decides to extend his return into next season, but eventually there will come a day when the midfield maestro leaves the game permanently.
While his return has been a huge boost for United this season, it also provides Sir Alex Ferguson with a second opportunity to find an heir to Scholes' midfield throne.
Before we go any further, let's make one thing perfectly clear. Nobody will ever truly replace Paul Scholes. Even if United go out and break the bank on a world-class midfielder, he will never be an exact replacement.
Scholes is one of the most unique and complete midfielders to have ever graced the game. End of discussion. To find someone who possesses all of his attributes is simply impossible.
Nevertheless, while he may be irreplaceable, the club will still need to acquire a new midfielder if they are to remain competitive and strive for improvement. There are a number of suitable candidates that United will most likely pursue this summer, many of whom have been linked with a transfer to Old Trafford already. Some are even already at the club.
Only one midfielder, possibly two, would be required in the summer to prepare for life after Scholes. These seven midfielders would be suitable options to begin the transition in preparing a squad that could compete for years to come.
Be sure to comment below on which of these options you would want to see grace the pitch of Old Trafford next season.
Tom Cleverley is perhaps the most obvious pick to eventually fill the void left by Paul Scholes at Manchester United, and at the start of the season it certainly seemed that would be the case.
He only made five appearances at the start of the campaign, but his performances were excellent, and the future of the United midfield looked to be promising. Instead, Kevin Davies struck Cleverley down in the midst of his terrific form.
Cleverley has since struggled to rediscover the same form that made him such an exciting prospect back in August. Injuries continued to plague him, and all returns to the first team proved to be short-lived. It seemed he was on the brink of establishing himself as an important player in the squad, but Cleverley has made just a mere 14 appearances this season.
United supporters will no doubt have high hopes for next season, however. If Cleverley can stay fit, hopefully a good run of games will allow him to reestablish himself in the first team and prove he is still the future of the midfield.
With an eye to attack, Cleverley looks brilliant in the link-up play. He injects energy in the midfield, and many still believe he was a key factor for the breathtaking play that United demonstrated at the start of the season. In fact, the team did seem to lose their spark after Cleverley suffered that injury against Bolton, although this could be dismissed as coincidence.
Cleverley should have further opportunities next season to prove himself in the first team, and having the influence of Scholes could even have a profound impact on Cleverley's continuing development as the future star of the United midfield.
Eden Hazard has become increasingly linked with a move to Manchester United, and Sir Alex Ferguson even recently confirmed that he has personally scouted the Lille playmaker.
Few will argue that Hazard seems destined to become one of the best, so it is of little surprise that United have shown such a strong interest in the promising young star.
Hazard, however, would not be a like-for-like replacement for Paul Scholes. Although used predominantly as a winger with Lille this season, many believe that Hazard's future lies in a central role. If this is the case, it could signal a transition away from the 4-4-2 toward the increasingly popular 4-2-3-1.
It is unlikely Hazard would be suited to play as a box-to-box midfielder, and it is difficult to envision how he might adapt to playing as a central midfielder in a 4-4-2. Instead, it seems likely that Hazard would play behind the striker as an attacking midfielder, anchored by two holding midfielders.
Hazard is undoubtedly an exciting talent, the likes of which supporters would love to see in a United kit. Gifted with excellent technical ability, Hazard possesses all the necessary attributes to provide a vital creative presence in the United midfield.
And for a club whose supporters demand attractive football, Hazard is an exhilarating talent whose tantalizing play will get fans excited.
There is now an undeniable interest coming from Old Trafford, although there will be intense competition from all the top clubs in Europe to sign one of the game's emerging stars. Hazard is likely to cost a significant transfer fee, but it could prove to be an important signing to strengthen the United midfield for years to come.
For a more in-depth analysis: Eden Hazard: Would He Be a Good Fit at Manchester United?
Nicolás Gaitán is another player who has been linked with Manchester United multiple times this season, and after getting a glimpse of him with Benfica in the Champions League, Sir Alex Ferguson may be ready to make the Argentine his next midfield star.
Similar to Hazard, the resounding criticism of speculation linking Gaitán to Old Trafford has been that he is predominantly a winger. And just like Hazard, the rebuttal is that Gaitán is capable of playing in a central attacking role and that his future appears to be playing through the middle.
Some reports even suggest that a deal has already been agreed with Benfica to bring Gaitán to Old Trafford in the summer. A transfer fee of £20 million was suggested, and the deal would likely include Federico Macheda moving to Portugal in a permanent transfer and Fabio on loan.
Gaitán is among the exciting creative midfield talents currently gracing Europe, and after two impressive seasons with Benfica he may be ready to light up the Premier League with United. Since moving from Boca Juniors to Benfica in 2010, Gaitán has amassed 13 goals and 27 assists from 91 appearances.
With continuing concerns surrounding the creativity of the United midfield, Gaitán ticks all the boxes in the search for a playmaker. Clearly he is a player who can create opportunities for his teammates, along with contributing goals from midfield.
United saw firsthand what a lethal attacking threat Gaitán could be in midfield when the two met in the Champions League group stage. Gaitán provided the assist for Benfica in the 1-1 draw in Portugal and then delivered the deadly cross that Phil Jones turned in for an own goal in a 2-2 stalemate at Old Trafford.
Assuming reports claiming a deal is already complete are indeed accurate, Gaitán may already be earmarked as the next playmaker for United. If not, he certainly seems a strong option, which Sir Alex may pursue at the conclusion of this season.
For more in-depth analysis: Manchester United: Nicolas Gaitan Could Be the Future of United's Midfield
Manchester United supporters got a glimpse at the promising Christian Eriksen in the Europa League this season against Ajax, and now it seems he could be one of the primary targets for Sir Alex Ferguson this summer.
René Meulensteen, first team coach at United, confirmed in December that the club were scouting Eriksen, but despite admitting interest, he would not be drawn on the possibility of a transfer in the near future.
As one of the most highly rated midfield talents in Europe, interest in Eriksen is hardly a shocking revelation from the United coach. With midfield the priority for United and an heir to Paul Scholes still needed, the Denmark international is likely viewed as one of the suitable candidates to fit that necessity.
Unlike the often-linked Eden Hazard and Nicolás Gaitán, Eriksen is actually a natural central midfielder and is likely the most suited to operate in Sir Alex's favored 4-4-2.
Supporters have been concerned with a lack of creativity from the midfield in recent seasons, something that Eriksen would likely offer in the squad. Since making the breakthrough with Ajax in January 2010, Eriksen has scored 17 goals and registered 36 assists from his 110 appearances for the club.
In addition to his success with Ajax, the 20-year-old midfielder also has 21 appearances and two goals for the Denmark national team. Personal accolades further advance his credentials as a suitable target for the United midfield. Eriksen collected a hat trick of awards in 2011, including Danish Football Player of the Year, Dutch Football Talent of the Year and AFC Ajax Talent of the Year.
With an already impressive résumé, Eriksen will inevitably attract attention from United as they seek to find a long-term option to strengthen their midfield, something that will be especially vital when Scholes decides to hang up his boots for the last time.
Yohan Cabaye has been one of the most surprisingly impressive signings in the Premier League this season, and the Frenchman should rightly be attracting attention from the likes of Manchester United.
After joining Newcastle United from French champions Lille at the conclusion of last season, Cabaye quickly took to the Premier League and has been a vital component of the squad that has shocked many by pushing for a place in the top four.
Cabaye is a far more deep-lying midfielder than the aforementioned options, plus he is a proven talent in the Premier League. He is an interesting mix of steel and finesse, providing not only an attacking threat, but also an impressive asset to provide a defensive presence in midfield to shield the back four.
United personally witnessed just what a dominating presence he is in midfield. As part of the Newcastle side that bossed United at St James Park early in January, Cabaye put in a commanding performance that included a stunning 30-yard free kick worthy as a goal of the season candidate.
With Newcastle now in the top four, Cabaye has proven what an impressive talent he is in the Magpies' push for Champions League football. Five goals and nine assists is an impressive return from such a deep-lying midfielder, although a passing completion success of 79.9 percent is perhaps slightly less than ideal.
His recent performance against Stoke City was fantastic to witness, scoring twice and providing a lovely assist for Papiss Cisse in their 3-0 victory. Such performances this season have in further involvement for the France national team under former United player Laurent Blanc.
Speculation linking Cabaye with a move to Old Trafford has been almost non-existent. However, he would provide a talented and realistic target for the club. Unlike high-profile targets like Eden Hazard, Cabaye would likely prove far more financially plausible for United.
Some supporters may prefer a marquee signing, but Cabaye is one player who could prove a smart buy for United this summer.
Anderson was signed back in 2007 as the future of the Manchester United midfield, but injuries and inconsistent form have prevented him to achieving that in his five-year stay at Old Trafford.
Arriving at Old Trafford as "the next Ronaldinho," the comparison has disappointingly proven false. Moments of brilliance have been marred by painstaking inconsistencies. Although hardly the stunning attacking talent that supporters expected from the Ronaldinho comparison, Anderson did prove a promising box-to-box midfielder in his first season.
Since the initial promise he demonstrated, injuries have kept him from getting extended runs in the time. Unfortunate timing seems to plague the Brazilian midfielder, injury often striking just as he begins to hit a good run of form.
Now 24 years old, much more is expected of Anderson than what he has achieved. Despite starting this season in fine form, the injury inflicted to Tom Cleverley seemed to coincide with Anderson's dip in form, culminating in a dire performance against Otelul Galati in the Champions League.
Anderson has made limited appearances for the club since that performance against Otelul Galati and was recently ruled out for the remainder of the season.
Off-the-pitch problems may further hurt his future with United. He was fined by the club in January 2010 for an unauthorized trip back to Brazil, and then involved in a serious car accident in August later that year. Anderson was coming home from a nightclub at 7 a.m. when he drove his car off the road. He was pulled from the car unconscious.
Although nothing further came from the incident, it is still questionable behavior for a professional athlete to be out so late with the season rapidly approaching.
Most recently, Anderson refused a breath test after being pulled over in Brazil while celebrating his 24th birthday near his hometown. He was consequently fined, and his body guard then had to drive him home from the scene.
With his performances on the pitch less than impressive, these off-the-pitch antics surely do him no favors with Sir Alex Ferguson. To be honest, his future at United looks bleak at the moment, but crazier things have certainly happened in football and he may yet come good.
Luka Modric is probably a far-fetched midfield option for Manchester United, especially considering Tottenham Hotspur turned down a £40 million offer from Chelsea last summer, but he remains the first choice of many United supporters.
Realistically, the club would probably be priced out of a move, but it is hard to deny that Modric is one of the best playmakers in the Premier League currently.
United's chances of acquiring Modric could improve if Tottenham fail to qualify for Champions League, however. The Croatian would surely seek Champions League football in that scenario, and United might be one of the clubs to offer him that.
Of all the other options, Modric is by far the best suited for the 4-4-2 currently favored by Sir Alex Ferguson, and the manager is thought to be a big admirer of the Tottenham star. Modric's stats are surprisingly unimpressive for such a highly rated player. Although his passing completion of 87.5 percent is impressive, just four assists and three goals seems slightly low for a player of his quality.
Stats can be deceiving, however, and Modric clearly has an immense influence in this current Tottenham side. Such a presence would be valued in the United midfield, and could result in Sir Alex making his move this summer. Another year of missing out on the Champions League could force Tottenham to sell a player whose ambitions have gone unfulfilled at White Hart Lane.
The one downside has been Tottenham's collapse in the Premier League since the turn of the year. Considered to be in the title race in January, Tottenham have now dropped out of the top four, and Modric has been less than impressive during the club's struggles.
It is likely just be a dip in form, especially considering the class Modric has shown in the past. As such, it is unlikely to affect interest from other clubs, although it does present some concerns.
It seems like a long shot, but Modric would provide an experienced and talented option to take over for Paul Scholes in the United midfield. Will it happen? Plenty of United fans will certainly be hopeful it can.