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Are Scholes and Giggs holding Manchester United back?

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Last night, Manchester United won under difficult conditions against decent opposition, stood up to the countless petty fouls and whimsical diving and are on their way back to face Chelsea at Old Trafford with all the players fit (Ronaldo should be fine, hopefully).

It’s all good news then – except the fact that questions must be asked about two of Manchester United’s most celebrated stars of the past decade: Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.

Let me clarify from the start that this has nothing to do with what these two have done for Manchester United for all these years. Their accomplishments cannot be diminished, nor can their contributions be ignored – these two are giants in Manchester United’s history and legends without seeking the limelight.

However, this is also Manchester United that we’re talking about – a club that lays claim to being the best in the world, a club that must improve every year, not because they are competing with other clubs but because they must be better than they were the last time around. It is an impossible ambition, but for Manchester United it is the only one.

Ryan Giggs

Ryan Giggs is doing a far more difficult job than people realise. He’s a free-flowing winger playing in a tight support striker’s role. He doesn’t have the typical attacking midfielder’s knack of breaking into the box just at the right time (like Paul Scholes), he lacks the natural striker’s instinct to put half chances away, and in his support striker role he doesn’t have the space he used to have on the wings to take on opponents and beat them with skill and pace. Even Ronaldo, for all his skills, uses pace as a major part of his arsenal and Giggsy lacks that explosive burst and without the space, he’s stuck.

It’s a big ask to ask your captain to sacrifice himself and play in such a role to which he’s obviously not suited to and a role in which he’s genuinely playing for the team at the risk of facing the wrath of the fans for not performing at the heights that they have come to expect of Ryan Giggs. For his courage, determination and selflessness, Giggsy must be commended.

The only reason Giggs is playing in that role though, is because Rooney, Saha and Anderson are not 100% fit. With Saha fit, he takes the striker role and Tevez slots in behind him / alongside him. Ditto for a Tevez / Rooney partnership if Rooney is fully fit, and once Anderson has a dozen games on the trot for Manchester United under his belt he will be another prime candidate for that position (and offer United better penetration in attack as well as more pace).

In a Manchester United weakened by injuries, Ryan Giggs is a hero for playing the second striker role. In a fully-fit squad though, Ryan Giggs has no business in that position, and thus he falls back to the wings. On the right, we have the irreplaceable Ronaldo and like it or not, he’s more important to Manchester United on the pitch than Giggsy. On the left, we have the blossoming partnership of Nani and Evra, and after a difficult initiation (Nani has been thrown in at the far end of the pool so far as his debut for Manchester United is concerned and he’s come out stronger, better and more confident) Nani looks good and improving on the left. Would he keep Giggs on the bench?

At this point, I have to say yes. As much as Giggsy’s experience is valuable, we have other people capable of filling in his role as leader and captain (Rio), on taking corners (Nani, Carrick), on free kicks (Ronnie and Hargo, although Ronnie needs to get his act together) and as a creative influence on the pitch (Everyone apart from Vidic and EVDS).

The question to ask is – what does Ryan Giggs provide on the left flank (or as a support striker) that any other player can not do better in that position? If you rate Giggs ahead of Nani, then there is the question of pace (and what that does to United’s left flank – Nani’s presence means that Evra has to overlap less and therefore can defend better) and of Manchester United’s future – giving Nani games now ensures that by the time next season rolls on we’ll have an excellent left-winger on the books capable of tearing apart opposition defences. Playing Giggsy only holds back Nani’s development at this point.

There’s one thing I skipped – Giggsy’s suitability as a support striker in an injury-hit Manchester United squad. There’s a big reason why we’re playing the 4-4-1 or 4-5-1 system, and that’s Paul Scholes. Unless you have a Rooney playing in Giggsy’s current role, Fergie can’t afford to play 2 strikers with Scholes and not have his midfield overrun. And considering the form Manchester United are in, Fergie is banking on what he knows has the best chance of working – experience – and therefore Giggs stays. Although it’s not as if we have a star striker just waiting in the sidelines.

Giggs still has at least till the end of 2009 at Manchester United (and if he can stay fit, perhaps another year after that). But his time as a sure starter for Manchester United has come to an end. With injuries a regular part of the season, it’s unlikely that Giggs will be asked to sit on the bench for too long but when the time comes, I hope Ferguson is strong enough to bench his vice-captain and play the strongest Manchester United XI.

Paul Scholes

While there are people who are willing write Giggsy off, hardly anyone is doing the same to Paul Scholes, and this is where it gets problematic. On the surface, Paul Scholes had hardly put a foot wrong this season. However, there are signs that the master is in decline and there are two big signs screaming at us from central midfield – Scholesy’s movement on the pitch (or lack thereof) and the shredded confidence of Michael Carrick.

Scholes is a smart footballer who plays to his strengths – which is why you’ll hardly see him make a mistake, because he focuses on what he does well, minimizes errors and keeps at it.

The problem is, Scholes is slow as hell in midfield and while he makes up for it through experience and intelligent positioning on the pitch, he rarely moves forward until the whole team is pushing forward, and as a result we lose a lot of forward thrust in midfield. Last season we had Rooney covering the extra ground and although this season Scholesy’s slowed down a bit more. With Giggs playing in Rooney’s role we haven’t had the same impact in the middle of the pitch, and as a result we’ve had a lot of trouble dominating the midfield despite having being far better every single time.

On the other hand, as Scholes is far better creatively than defensively, he’s not going to defend much. This amounts to Scholesy roaming in circles in midfield trying to influence the game with his ‘positioning’ as well as his actual efforts on the ball, and this leaves gaps behind him and ahead of him that need to be filled.

He’s also started letting balls go if they’re too far to get to easily, preferring to let them run to team-mates or allowing the opposition to get possession by falling back and attempting to cover instead of going in and winning the ball. In one way it saves us from giving away unnecessary free-kicks but on the other hand we keep giving the possession away and there’s no room for error for anyone else passing to Scholesy.

All this puts a lot of pressure on other players who have to cover the areas that Scholesy leaves open, and no one has felt that pressure this season more than Michael Carrick.

There was a time last season when Carrick was being tipped as the successor to Paul Scholes with his passing and creative skills tipped to complement Hargo’s no-nonsense defending perfectly. However, we started this season with 3 players in midfield – Scholes playing centre, Giggs supporting the striker but unable to track back effectively to cover Scholes and Carrick left to mop up behind Scholes as well as push forward to create more chances.

Carrick is good, he’s not that good – it was asking too much of him, and coupled with a worrying lack of form, his confidence has dropped and he’s now struggling to have the same impact on the pitch as he was last season. Defensively he’s less prone to sit back and shield and if he has to track back from further up in the midfield it leaves the United defense exposed (not that we should worry too much – rio and vida are playing even better than they were last season).

What if it was Hargreaves playing instead of Carrick? Hargo has that ‘engine’ to run up and down the pitch all day, he’s the sort of player who can, along with Rooney up front, cover Scholes (a major reason behind why Fergie went after Hargo). However, the one pairing I can’t wait to see is the Carrick-Hargreaves pairing – it would effectively free Carrick of much of his defensive duties and give him the creative license to push forward and stamp his authority on Manchester United’s midfield.

Under Scholesy’s shadow, the game moves through him and as Scholesy grows older and slows down, United’s midfield becomes less and less fluid. He’s still a great player, but there has to come a time when Ferguson should explore other options and find out what suits Manchester United best. With Hargreaves due to come back soon, I’d expect him to slot in and replace Carrick, but by the end of the season could it be Carrick replacing Scholes?

Manchester United comes first

It’s easily to be sentimental here but we’ve gone down that route with Roy Keane and seen where that got us. A player’s influence and value off the pitch as a leader can be outweighed by his lack of impact on the pitch, and a player’s status as a leader on the pitch can also have a negative impact on the players alongside him, regardless of how good he plays.

Will a Manchester United side without Giggs and Scholes play better this season? I hope so, because at the moment we’re playing scrappy and the two worrying areas have been the lack of control in central midfield and the few number of goals scored. If changing things can fix these problems, then shouldn’t we be doing it sooner rather than later?

When Hargreaves and Rooney are fully fit (and assuming Fergie plays Tevez with Rooney up front), Ferguson should find out the answer.

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