With the retirement of Paul Scholes on Tuesday, one of the finest attacking midfield players of the Premier League era brought a glittering career to a close. However, while the Manchester United star was undoubtedly a fine exponent of the beautiful game’s more attractive craft, some of the praise directed toward him subsequently has been slightly rose-tinted.
With such luminaries as Xavi Hernandez and Zinedine Zidane extolling the virtues of the 36-year-old, it may seem crass to suggest that their praise is a touch hyperbolic. But if you step back and take a look at Scholes in detail, it is difficult to get on board with Zidane’s assertion that he is “undoubtedly the greatest of his generation.”
It is true that Scholes’ best talents are under-appreciated by many in this country, but the fact is he did not execute them as effectively as others. Yes, he kept possession well and was a wonderful passer of the ball. But he never had the vision and timing of Xavi or the balletic poise and formidable presence of Zidane.
Scholes has seen the application of such great technique to its maximum effect first-hand on a number of occasions—Fernando Redondo at Old Trafford in 2000, Barcelona at Wembley in 2011, even United's 7-1 victory against Roma in 2007 (a game Scholes missed). But he has never scaled such heights himself.
The problem with bestowing an accolade such as “greatness” upon a player is that he needs more than just good ball retention, fine creativity and an eye for goal—all traits Scholes had in abundance. The greats have all proved their value by demonstrating a level of influence and importance to their team that transcends technical ability.
Scholes never influenced United in the manner of Roy Keane, Eric Cantona or Cristiano Ronaldo. When Xavi, a man who is the focal point for the greatest club side of the modern era, as well as a Spain team who are the reigning world and European champions, grants Scholes favourable comparisons to himself, we may regard this as extremely generous indeed.
Xavi has conducted two Champions League finals with precision, Zidane imposed himself on a World Cup final and both consistently dictated the fortunes of their clubs week in and week out over a number of years. Keane did so as well with his dynamism and will to win, not to mention giving arguably the greatest individual display in Champions League history against Juventus in the 1999 semifinals.
Scholes never had a match to rival these, and it is telling that, when both he and Keane picked up bookings in that match to rule them out of the final, the Irish skipper was regarded as by far the bigger loss.
At no stage in his career has Scholes even been the best midfielder at United, let alone in Europe. Indeed, for a period around the turn of the century he was arguably only the fourth-best United midfielder (behind Keane, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham), admittedly in a preposterously gifted quartet. By the time Keane and Beckham had left the club and Giggs’ powers were briefly on the wane, Ronaldo had begun to show the form that would lead to him becoming the world’s greatest player soon after.
That Scholes could still perform at the very highest level in his final seasons is also a myth. While Giggs has continued to defy his age, Saturday’s Champions League final notwithstanding, his longtime midfield colleague has looked weary and listless for at least two campaigns. His role has been greatly reduced, and he has rarely looked comfortable in big games.
No matter what Sir Alex Ferguson says about Scholes, he has been trusted to play a combined total of just 28 minutes across their last two Champions League final appearances. He was also substituted before extra time in the victorious 2008 final with United in search of a winner. Even as far back as three years ago Ferguson did not regard him as a game-breaker.
However, that should not take away from what the young man from Salford became, especially at his peak between 1997 and 2003. He was an excellent, gifted midfield player and one-club man. Just don’t call him a great.