In May, when we look back on the season that was, January 8 will stand out as the day it all went bonkers.
Budweiser, the new official sponsors of the FA Cup, must have been delighted.
A competition supposedly bereft of its magic was the backdrop to arguably the wildest morning in recent footballing history.
Even with Darren Fletcher unavailable, Tom Cleverley injured and Anderson predictably mediocre, no one saw it coming.
Paul Scholes’ retirement last summer had a sense of finality; conventional wisdom held that the once-great midfielder had called it quits at just the right time. Scholes’ testimonial was marked by a 10-minute cameo from youngster Paul Pogba, a midfielder that didn’t look out-of-place in a United side featuring several first-team players.
Sir Alex Ferguson may not have been particularly happy about Scholes’ retirement, but he was resigned to it. United’s intermittent attempts to sign Wesley Sneijder over the summer confirmed their desire for a new creator. The club was moving on.
And then, on Sunday morning, Paul Scholes announced his return to professional football.
For all the club’s supposed commitment to youth and Ferguson’s penchant for “freshening things up,” the modern incarnation of Manchester United will be remembered most for the longevity of its old guard. The same players who made the Manchester United of the mid-nineties an enthusiastic, buccaneering football club are now stubborn reminders of Ferguson’s limited financial backing, and of the dearth of teenage talent at Carrington.
Ferguson’s decision to bring Scholes back is as much a commentary on the state of the club as on the inconsistency of Anderson’s passing.
In an era when control of the midfield is crucial to European success, United are lagging behind not just Spain but also their local rivals, Manchester City. After Sunday’s game, Ferguson won’t need to be reminded of the contrast between the sloppy Scholes and the re-energized Owen Hargreaves, introduced with eight minutes remaining.
It’s unlikely that anyone will dare ask him about his failure to follow up his 20-million pound bid for David Silva in 2008. That summer, United were European Champions and had the right to consider themselves satisfactorily stocked. Now, woefully short of inspiration, they watch enviously as Silva orchestrates every City attack.
A win is a win, especially in cup competition, but United’s 3-2 victory over Manchester City was tentative and anemic, too careless to inspire confidence.
When United beat title rivals Arsenal 4-0 in the 2008 FA Cup, Wenger’s team lost all resolve and shattered soon after. It’s difficult to imagine that City will succumb to a similar fate. On Sunday, they were the more impressive performers -dogged, tactically astute, and determined. Despite the dismissal of defensive linchpin Vincent Kompany, City kept a clean sheet in the second half, and took advantage of the lapses United fans have become bitterly accustomed to. Sergio Aguero was magnificent in attack, and even Samir Nasri showed signs of life.
Too many of United’s best players are regressing. Phil Jones compounded last week’s own-goal with a clumsy performance against City, and Ashley Young will miss at least another month with injury. Javier Hernandez, a cult hero a year ago, has lost the enthusiasm that made him so dangerous in 2011/12. The temporary involvement of Dimitar Berbatov shows just how stretched this United squad has become.
For their trouble, United have earned a fourth-round visit to Anfield. Luis Suarez’s well-documented transgressions overshadowed a 1-1 draw with Liverpool in October, distracting the public from obvious problems. Steven Gerrard and Liverpool are good enough to expose those problems again.
United have sleepwalked their way through the second-half of 2011, and are lucky to be just three points off the top of the table. They are several points better off than at this time last season but, increasingly, it looks as if they owe that improved standing not to their own improvement but rather to the deficiencies of others. After all, at this time last season, Ferguson’s team was well on its way to a Champions League final.
Sunday’s match was a microcosm of Manchester United’s campaign thus far. Questionable refereeing decisions facilitated a rampaging start, before underlying deficiencies soured the final result. Amidst it all, confusion reigned. Paul Scholes wearing the number 22 shirt?
Perhaps the day’s most positive development was Ferguson’s decision to, at last, condemn United’s lackadaisical attitude.
“At 3-0 up the players thought we were through and took their foot off the pedal.” he said. “It was a careless performance, we should have been home and dry.”
The same sloppiness that sent United crashing out of Europe in November returned this weekend. The old reliability is gone, both off the pitch and on it. Ferguson still can’t decide between his two goalkeeping recruits, nor silence rumors of a rift with star man Wayne Rooney.
On a weekend of revival for an ailing competition – average attendance was better than it’s been for 30 years – United failed to emerge from their funk.
Paul Scholes is already the butt of jokes (who next, David Beckham?). He is the first central midfielder to sign for United in more than four years, and his uncomfortable 30 minutes made Ferguson look desperate, even misguided. The Ginger Magician couldn’t unleash the FA Cup’s legendary magic.
Scholes’ return is nothing more than a pitiable Band-Aid. This weekend, he brought intrigue to the FA Cup, but nothing tangibly positive to United’s midfield. His presence is symptomatic of the problems Ferguson is allowing to fester.