Sir Alex Ferguson is quite aware that there is no replacing the legendary Paul Scholes. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
During the past few years, in the anticipation of Paul Scholes' eventual retirement, a constant subject amongst supporters and the media has been the search for the midfield maestro's successor. This discussion has certainly carried over to the current summer transfer window as Manchester United have been linked to numerous central midfielders - to which initial comments often refer to whether the player can replace the recently retired United legend. Quite simply, taking the discussion in this direction needs to stop - Scholes is irreplaceable.
It is quite obvious that reinforcements are needed in the center the pitch at Old Trafford. After spending £50-million on the likes of Phil Jones, Ashley Young, and David De Gea, manager Sir Alex Ferguson likely is shifting his summer spending attention towards replenishing the central midfield. United do have a deep-lying distributor that shields the defense in Michael Carrick, industrious box-to-box types in Darren Fletcher and Anderson, an attack-minded Ryan Giggs in his reinvented role from the run-in, and a tactical swiss-army knife that can man-mark the opposition's deep-lying playmakers in Park Ji-sung. However, what the side lacks is a creator with the vision and range of passing to consistently provide a killer final ball in attack. Perhaps this is what many mean, whether they realize it or not, when they express similar sentiment to Didier Deschamps when describing United during the 2010-11 season - that the side lacks "fantasy."
One reason that attempting to replace Scholes is futile is the evolution of tactics in the past decade. United supporters like to fondly reminisce about the days of Scholes, Giggs, Roy Keane, and David Beckham and how that midfield was as good as it gets. If we are simply discussing a 4-4-2 shape, then I am certainly inclined to agree with anyone who might present that argument. However, modern football tactics have seen the involvement of more players in the center of the pitch - all things being equal, a 4-4-2 side will generally struggle versus a side that deploys a 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3, 4-3-3, or any other shape that brings extra players to the center. Even with the likes of Dwight Yorke or Eric Cantona dropping deep to help out in the center of the pitch, using a 4-4-2 can be like bringing a knife to a gunfight against sides that flood the central midfield.
As tactics have evolved in the past decade or two through Europe, so has Fergie. However, while the United manager has extended the range of his tactics, he continues to come full circle. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, there was certainly a preference for a 4-2-2, or the cousin shapes of 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1. No matter how one classified it, the common characteristics were these in attack: two central midfielders, two wingers, a striker that played off the shoulder of the last defender, and a striker that played in the hole. Generally, Fergie has not deviated much from this in England. It is in Europe where he became more practical in the past five years or so and in turn, United has seen more success in the Champions League. It is in these matches, and often in matches versus Arsenal FC, Liverpool FC, and Chelsea FC domestically, where the legendary manager has evolved and elected to use a 4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid shape.
In the past season though, one in which United won a record 19th domestic title and reached their 3rd Champions League final in 4 seasons, Fergie once again found a preference for a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 shape for the run-in. Perhaps because of the lack of quality in center of the pitch, and most certainly because of the emergence of the Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez and Wayne Rooney partnership, United reverted back to their old ways. This was largely successful, much of this due to Wazza's industry in his newfound number ten role, but flaws were exhibited versus Arsenal in a late season match at the Emirates and more notably in the Champions League final versus FC Barcelona. United were vulnerable versus sides that flooded the center of the pitch and had players frequent the space between the lines.
My guess is that Fergie will likely revert back to a three-man central midfield in "big matches" if he has the proper personnel at his disposal. However, this 4-3-3/3-5-1 hybrid shape is likely to be used much less often than his clear preference for a 4-4-2 shape in the grand scheme of things. Considering this, it is vital that United spend their money practically as they shop for help in the center of the pitch. While Fergie shops for a creative central midfielder, he needs to finds one that is versatile and that can play in either a two-man or three-man central midfield.
Rooney's recent role, one that has him dropping deep between the lines in search of space to create from, is also something that should be strongly considered. One of Wazza's biggest strengths is his versatility - he has excelled as a wide attacking forward, leading the attacking line as it's fulcrum, and also as a trequartista during the past season. However, it is this latter position, one that he seems to prefer and arguably flourishes most in. This role, and with his partnership with Chicharito, may be what Fergie envisions as the base of the attack in the near future. If so, buying a player like Sneijder, or anyone else who occupies the same space, may not be a sound decision.
Sneijder is undeniably brilliant, but he seems best suited in a free role that allows that allows him to wander into open space in attack - space that is similar to where Rooney occupied during the past season's run-in. Now, this would not be an issue if the Dutch playmaker were able to adapt and play deeper in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 shape, but there is no evidence that he can do this. Sneijder appears best suited as the attacking midfielder in a three-man central midfield.
Because of this, a player like Modric, one that naturally occupies space in a deeper role, makes much more sense for United. Although it now appears unlikely that the Croatian midfielder will be leaving Tottenham, unless it is for Chelsea, this is the sort of player that United should be seeking. Modric is tidy with his distribution, is able to provide a final killer ball from a two-man central midfield, and is competent in defense. While he may not have the scoring pedigree of Scholes, something that simply is not required in the current time frame and with Rooney's current role, he does possess a similar range of passing and he also provides "fantasy."
If we consider some of the other players that have been linked with United, some appear to be better fits than others if we apply this Modric versus Sneijder model. Footballers like Samir Nasri and Thiago Alcantara, who both are brilliant technically, should immediately be examined and the question of whether they can provide enough bite in a two-man central midfield is important. If they can, they both are great fits technically and tactically. If not, each are limited in Fergie's side. Perhaps a player like FC Porto's Joao Moutinho, one that has shown both versatility and playmaking ability in the past, is the type of player that we should all be hoping for this summer to fill the void in the center of the pitch at Old Trafford.