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An examination of Paul Scholes' return and his impact on Manchester United's midfield

That look of joy is how all United supporters feel about Scholesy's return
That look of joy is how all United supporters feel about Scholesy's return

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. That certainly was the case for Paul Scholes. However, it has been 39 days since the return of the midfield maestro from premature retirement and I don't think the fondness for him has subsided one bit for Manchester United supporters during this time.

Since Scholesy's return, United have been involved in 5 Premier League matches and 2 FA Cup ties -- and he's played a part in every single one of them. In those 7 contests, United have won 5 of them and only lost once -- the 1 loss was at Anfield in a match that United clearly outclassed Liverpool FC in. United's recent good form occurring since Scholes' return is not a coincidence. His impact has been far greater than even the most realistic optimist could have imagined.

After his initial appearance versus Manchester City on January 8, it was clear still that his technical ability was matched by only a few in the footballing world. The man dubbed 'Sat Nav' by teammates -- because of the incredible precision he displayed when picking out a pass anywhere on the pitch -- came on as a substitute in the 59th minute at the Etihad and he immediately pulled the strings as he completed an incredible 73 passes at a 97% success rate. However, expectations going forward were still modest because this was a 37-year-old player coming out of retirement and one that professed that his legs were gone last Spring.

After the City match, I wrote this piece suggesting that Scholes could be a useful squad player by coming on late to kill off matches by playing 'keep-ball' (*). While I anticipated that he would make the occasional start, it seemed reasonable to expect that his main role would be as an effective 'closer' late in games as a possession-based midfielder. Scholes did this in the City game, just as he did at the Emirates versus Arsenal on January 22, but his overall impact has been greater than this so far.

(*) The linked piece provides more tactical detail about Scholes and supplements this piece well. It would be rather redundant to repeat the same here.

To put it frankly, Scholes has absolutely dictated every single one of the four matches that he's started in since his comeback. In each of these matches, his midfield partner has been Michael Carrick and together, they've helped United play possession-based football. In the four matches that Scholes has started, United's ball possession in each of those encounters has been 63%, 57%, 75%, and 55% -- two of those matches have been against rival Liverpool. United's season average in Premier League action is 56.2% -- a number that has risen because of Scholes' return.

Here is a match-by-match and season-total chart of Scholes' passing statistics:



Prem or FA Cup

Passes completed/attempts

Pass Success %


City (a)












Arsenal (a)






Liverpool (a)






Stoke City






Chelsea (a)
















At season's beginning, United played dynamic football in a fast and fluid 4-4-2 -- with Tom Cleverley and Anderson as the midfield duo. Despite the wins and goals piling up, United alarmingly had conceded the joint-most shots of any side in the Premier League by early October. This resulted because the gap between Cleverley/Ando and United's center-backs was simply too large. FC Basel and Chelsea exposed United but City set Old Trafford ablaze when their 'interiores' that day tore United apart in that space between the lines.

Three reasons partially explained this vulnerability: (1) Ando and Cleverley had a good understanding with each other -- one would go forward while the other covered -- but neither was a holding player and thus, space was left in behind them. (2) Rio Ferdinand, and to a lesser extent Nemanja Vidic, didn't adjust by playing higher (in order to compact the lines) because both are vulnerable on the turn due to limited pace. (3) United's back four was constantly changing due to injury so no continuity was established.

As a result, Michael Carrick was reintroduced as first-choice midfielder in November and the cerebral midfielder has played every single league minute since. Sir Alex Ferguson opted for calm and for a player that would help keep the defense and midfield lines more compact. For awhile, United frustrated their supporters as they continually clawed and scratched their way to 1-0 results -- but those were vital points picked up that kept them afloat in the title race. United were less fluid in attack, but they were more structurally sound. This was aided by Wayne Rooney beginning to drop deeper than he was earlier in the season -- United are currently a side that is reliant on his ball-winning ability.

Enter Scholes. This completed United's recent transition to being a possession-based side with two deep central-midfielders. Carrick and Scholes essentially act as 'double-pivots' -- their deep positioning limits the gap between the lines while it also allows them more time on the ball to distribute. The duo's intelligence and range of passing allows each to choose when to pass short, pass long, pass quickly, or when to establish calm -- essentially they are able to control a match by dictating it's tempo. Rooney's willingness to track back and be combative in the center of the park helps free up these two deep-lying playmakers.

This doesn't make them rigid nor prevent them from being dynamic though. Scholes/Carrick share a similar understanding to the Cleverley/Ando partnership. The former partnership is based deeper positionally but they too are interchangeable and get forward for late-arriving runs into the box. The chalkboard below -- from the recent Stoke match -- does well to show how both Scholes and Carrick get up-and-down and side-to-side. Their movement is good and their ability to take up smart positions make them difficult to deal with. Perhaps more simply, notice how similar their chalkboards are and how much of the pitch they cover.

by Guardian Chalkboards

Going forward, what should we still worry about? Well first of all, enjoy this. It is an absolute treat right now watching the legend display such class at 37-years-old -- so much so that Harry Redknapp is already discussing bringing Scholes into the England squad for Euro 2012 if the Spurs manager gets the job.

There are three things I'll be keeping an eye out for though: (1) Scholes has fresh legs now and he's dictating matches from deep as he did in August and September of 2010. However, his influence diminished as the season wore on and this coincides to when he felt his legs had left him. Fergie will surely monitor his minutes and fitness but this is all important to keep in mind if we're expecting Scholesy to keep up the quality of his past month. (2) The other concern I have is against sides that intently press United high up the pitch. So far, opponents have defended deep against the United duo and allowed them time on the ball. How will they respond if they're actively pressed? In the 2-1 league loss last season at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea continually pressed and by the 2nd-half, Scholes and Carrick began to lose control of the match (one that they were previously controlling -- did they tire?) and were eventually overrun. (3) And lastly, how will Scholes partner with Cleverley, Anderson, and Phil Jones? So far, it has been Carrick that has been Scholes partner for every match during his return.