Manchester United: Top 10 Midfielders in Red Devils History

Ben Chodos@bchodosCorrespondent IIFebruary 13, 2012

Manchester United: Top 10 Midfielders in Red Devils History

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    Manchester United has had many quality midfield players, but 10 of them stood out from the rest.

    In soccer, the team that wins more balls in the center of the field invariably comes out on top. This is one likely reason for the Red Devils winning 19 English titles—more than any other team. 

    United has one of the most storied histories of any club in the world, and the roster of former—and current—midfielders features several all-time greats.

    Here are the 10 best players ever to occupy the middle of the pitch at Old Trafford.

Criteria

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    In addition to demonstrating excellent technical abilities, leadership and poise on the pitch, the players on the list must:

    * Have played with Manchester United for at least five years.

    * Have at least made 150 appearances for the Red Devils.

    * Have won two or more league titles with the team, or have scored at least 50 goals.

    The length of a player's tenure with United is a major factor, which determines the order of the list. A player who had a couple excellent seasons but left the club early in his career may rank below a player who had several very good seasons over a long stint.

    All 10 players on the list were featured in the Manchester United: Greatest Ever XI series. 

    All statistics were taken from stretfordend.co.uk.

    Simple enough. Let's get started.

Honorable Mentions

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    Paul Ince: Ince was a vicious tackler and an expert distributor in the midfield who catapulted to stardom with the Red Devils. He played seven seasons and scored 29 goals in 281 appearances.

    He was never able to get along with manager Sir Alex Ferguson and was sold to Internazionale before the 1995 season. If he had stayed on good terms with Fergie, Ince almost certainly would have been able to rack up the necessary trophies and stats to put him on the list. 

    Nicky Butt: Butt had a long, successful career with United, scoring 26 goals in 386 appearances across 13 seasons.

    However, he was unfortunate enough to play the same position as players like Paul Ince, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane, who were at United at the same time. He never received the necessary amount of starts to make a big enough impact to be included with the 10 best midfielders in club history.

    The Fallen Busby Babes: Sir Matt Busby started an incredible youth movement at United in the 1950s and won two consecutive league championships in 1956 and 1957 with teams that had average ages of 21 and 22. 

    But disaster struck in February of 1958, when the team's plane crashed while leaving Munich, Germany, killing eight players.

    Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards and David Pegg would more than likely have gone on to continue playing at a high level for many years had they not perished in the crash.

    Johnny Berry was another player who had a bright future, but sustained career-ending injuries in the disaster. 

10. Steve Coppell

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    A burner on the flanks and skilled on the ball, Coppell was a nightmare for opposing defenders.

    The winger played for United from 1975 to1983, scoring 70 goals and helping the team to an FA Cup title in 1976-77.

    His pace and touch made him a feared scorer, as well as the 10th best midfielder in the club's history. 

9. Paddy Crerand

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    Crerand played for Manchester United from 1963 to1971 and helped the team to two league championships in 1964-65 and 1966-67.

    Appearing in 397 games and scoring 15 goals, the Scotsman played primarily as a holding midfielder and was a stabilizing force for United.

    By no means a flashy player, he was known more for his solid tackling and pinpoint passes, which helped create hundreds of goals for team mates Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law and George Best. 

8. Nobby Stiles

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    Norbert "Nobby" Stiles was another vital piece to United's midfield in the 1960s, with his elite marking skills and tenacity. 

    The relentless defensive midfielder appeared for United 394 times and scored 19 goals between 1960 and 1971. 

    He often played beside Crerand and the two formed a menacing pair in the middle of the field.

    The highlight of Stiles' career with the Red Devils came when the team beat Benfica 4-1 in extra time to become the first English side to win the European Cup in 1968.

    Stiles flourished after being given the difficult task of guarding Benfica's legendary forward, Eusébio, who had won the European Golden Boot for most domestic league goals that year.

    His defensive prowess places him one notch above his midfield partner on this list. 

7. Cristiano Ronaldo

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    Ronaldo had one of the best seasons ever for a United player in 2007-08, when he scored 42 goals and led his team to Premier League and Champions League titles.

    The winger was selected FIFA World Player of the Year for his play that season.

    During a stint which lasted from 2003 to 2009, Ronaldo scored 118 goals and made 292 appearances before leaving for Real Madrid in a deal worth £80 million.

    It made him the most expensive player in club football history.

    No player on the list had a better season than Ronaldo's 2007-08 gem, but his decision to leave for Madrid and cut his United career short kept him from receiving a higher rank.

6. David Beckham

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    Before he married Posh Spice and became a tabloid fixture, David Beckham was just a soccer player—and a damn good one too. 

    Beckham rose to superstardom with Manchester United by scoring 85 goals in 394 appearances.

    The highlight of his 13 year career at Old Trafford came in 1999 when he helped the team win the FA Cup, Champions League and Premier League.

    The midfielder's crosses and free kicks—not to mention his underrated speed and dribbling skills— helped United win six league championships.

    But Beckham, just like Ronaldo, moved on to Real Madrid when he still had productive years left in him. He ranks higher than the Portuguese star because he spent more years with the club, but could have been higher on the list had he chosen to stay in Manchester.

5. Bryan Robson

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    Bryan Robson was a prolific goal-scorer and playmaker during his 14 season career with Manchester United. 

    He was a jack-of-all-trades who had few weaknesses, and United kept him in the center of the field in order to keep him as close to the action as possible.

    Robson scores 99 goals in 461 appearances while playing from 1981 to 1994.

    Unfortunately, the bulk of the Englishman's career came during United's 26 year title drought, but he was part of two well-deserved Premier League championships in his final couple of seasons with the club. 

4. Roy Keane

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    Roy Keane earned the nickname "Captain Fantastic" for his many years of service as the Manchester United skipper.

    The Irishman brought an edge to midfield and never allowed United to be intimidated by the opposition. He was also an extraordinarily smart and skilled player, and scored 51 goals in 480 appearances with the club.

    His best moment at United came in the 1998-99 Champions League semifinal against Juventus. Losing 2-0 early in the game, Keane scored an incredible goal off of a corner kick to spark a memorable comeback. 

    His heroic effort was even more remarkable because he had already accumulated enough yellow cards to receive a suspension for the final. Despite knowing he would miss the next game, Keane refused to quit and led United to a 3-2 victory. His performance prompted this quote from his manager Sir Alex Ferguson:

    "It was the most emphatic display of selflessness I have seen on a football field. Pounding over every blade of grass, competing if he would rather die of exhaustion than lose, he inspired all around him. I felt it was an honour to be associated with such a player."

    Keane was a true leader during his 13 year career with the club and won seven Premier League medals. His grit and his grace made him one of the true legends of United history.

3. Ryan Giggs

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    Ryan Giggs' 899 appearances for Manchester United is a club record, making the Welshman the iron man of the Premiership.

    At 38-years-old, Giggs—in his 22nd season at Old Trafford—still plays regularly for the Red Devils and is looking to add to his tally of 162 goals.

    The winger was more often than not the fastest player on the field during the early stages of his career and he used his pace to terrorize opposing defenses.

    As he grew older, he reformed his style of play to adapt to his fading athleticism and showed the could be effective as a central midfielder.

    Giggs grew up in the United youth program and was called up to the first team in 1991. Since his debut with the first team, he has won the EPL an incredible 12 times. 

    His speed when he was younger, and his veteran savvy as he grew older, make Giggs one of the three best midfielders in club history.

2. Paul Scholes

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    Paul Scholes won 10 Premier League titles with United and has played his entire youth and professional career with the club. 

    He has so far made 683 appearances over 19 seasons, scoring 151 goals.

    United discovered how important the central midfielder was to the team after he retired and left a giant gap in the center of the park. 

    Sir Alex Ferguson convinced Scholes to come out of retirement and the Englishman has been extremely effective since his return.

    He is one of the most complete midfielders in team history. His speed, skill and vision have made him dangerous going forward, while his work-rate and aggressive style have allowed him to be a fearsome defender.

    His loyalty to the club, in addition to his magnificent talent, make him the second best midfield player ever to take to the pitch for United.

1. George Best

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    Maradona—good. Pelé—better. George—as his name suggests—best.

    Only a man with the last name "Best" could top all Manchester United midfielders.

    The Northern Irish national scored 179 goals in 470 appearances across 11 seasons with the club.

    He was an indomitable talent who could beat players with speed or skill and finish with both feet. 

    Best made his debut with the first team at age 17 and won the league championship twice. He was also an instrumental part of the 1968 European Cup winning team.

    In the same season, his unstoppable attacking ability earned him 32 goals and the Ballon d'Or award for best European player.

    Unfortunately, he played as hard off the field as he did on it, and was an alcoholic with an extravagant lifestyle. 

    Best's career with United could have lasted longer—he stopped playing for the club at age 27.

    However, his stint with Red Devils was so unforgettable that it has earned him his rightful place atop all other Manchester midfielders.

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