Manchester United's Paul Scholes: Michael Carrick's Predecessor and Successor?
Sir Alex Ferguson has every right to wake up with a headache this morning after last night's away tie in Marseille. His sore temples and tight eyes may not come as a result of the infamous red wine he will have sipped with Marseille boss Didier Deschamps, but more likely his dull pain comes in light of United's turgid display at the Stade Vélodrome last night.
No strangers to tight away legs in Europe and veritable experts at progressing to the latter stages of the Champions League, United began the evening with a three-man central midfield that saw Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher and Darron Gibson as link-men for Nani and the roaming Wayne Rooney on the flanks, while Dimitar Berbatov was left to fend for himself up front.
After 20 minutes of fluid, passing play, United seemed to lack ideas and conviction, culminating in a frustrating and hugely unentertaining game in France.
"Marseille made sure they weren't going to lose a goal. They're very strong defensively, a very powerful team." Ferguson reflected after what he termed "a poor game."
"They didn't pose many problems for us. Nothing really happened to be honest, and I don't think it was a good match to watch," he added.
Ferguson will be hoping to have centre-back Rio Ferdinand, winger Ryan Giggs and midfielder Anderson available to face Marseille after the trio missed the draw through injury. The experience of the Ferdinand and Giggs especially could be crucial, particularly if the French champions have key striker Andre-Pierre Gignac back from the groin problem which forced him to sit out the first leg.
Ferguson will be far happier, however, with two men in particular this morning. The old and the new, Chris Smalling and Paul Scholes, were extremely effective performers last night. The former has progressed exponentially over the last few months while the latter never seems to disappoint these days.
Scholes' bio is fairly common knowledge, and in what is widely regarded to be his last term at United, before he heads off to Oldham, the United stalwart is doing the club - that he has spent his entire career with - proud.
Last night as he took the field to replace a largely ineffective Gibson, his energy and passing range kept United's midfield neater and more robust than it had been for the previous 70 minutes of football.
What Scholes offered United was by no means the answer to their impotence in front of goal and the days of him appearing late on the edge of the box to smash the winner are gone, but what Scholes does so well is what Carrick quite simply does not.
When Carrick was signed from Spurs in 2006, he was widely regarded as a long term replacement for former United captain Roy Keane, but as the years have gone by the £14 million price tag (which would rise to £18.6) has proven to be as excessive as United fans feared it might be at the time. His lack of mobility and range has seen him not only struggle to forge out a consistent role in the United starting 11 but has also seen him fall out with Fergie professionally and personally.
Upon his arrival, Carrick had come off the back of a season in which he had made more crosses and more passes than any other Tottenham player and, along with Mido, was joint top in assists for his side. Since then, this passing ratio has fallen, and his assists currently sit at zero. Even the season-long injured John O'Shea has more assists than Carrick so far this year.
Conversely, in the time that Carrick has been at United, Scholes has scored twice as many goals and nearly four times more assists. Last term, Scholes became the 19th player in Premier League history to score 100 goals and has every reason to expect more from his younger team mate.
A big improvement is needed if Carrick is to earn his stripes. At present, Carrington is home to the best old prospect in the Premier League who will be sorely missed when he moves on. Replacing him will certainly be in Sir Alex's thoughts, and only the next few months will tell whether players like Anderson have what it takes.
Sadly, at 29 years old we can be certain that the answer doesn't lie in Michael Carrick.
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