When Paul Scholes Was In His Prime
Famously a reporter once asked French legend Zinedine Zidane…
‘What does it feel like to be the best player in the world?’
“I don't know. Ask Paul Scholes.”
When compiling a list of the greatest midfielders to have ever played the game - who comes to mind?
Perhaps midfield generals like Patrick Viera or Roy Keane. Types who control games from the middle of the park, endlessly demanding and with a relentless drive for perfection.
Or elegant geniuses from further afield. Those graceful playmaking engines such as Andreas Pirlo or Xavi. Examples of midfield talents oozing with finesse, a masterful touch and subtle passing ability to split even the most accomplished of defences.
But consider Paul Scholes.
Rarely romanticised in the same way, Manchester United’s unassuming great is rated by his fellow professionals and pundits alike, as one of the best.
The Rise Of Paul Scholes
Remember that kid from Manchester, you know - the one with the ginger hair, who used to play up front for Blackburn Rovers?
Thankfully neither do we.
Many simply don’t realise that Paul Scholes’ journey from promising rookie to midfield maestro almost never happened.
People forget that he wasn’t even part of the infamous 1992 FA Youth Cup winning side from which the likes of David Beckham, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt all emerged. Scholes only started to make waves of his own the following season alongside Phil Neville; eventually turning professional in 1993.
Even then Scholes had to wait patiently for an opportunity, finally making his United debut at the beginning of the 1994-95 season, scoring two goals in a League cup tie against lowly Port Vale.
Scholes started his footballing life as a forward.
A tenacious attacker who firmly applied his trade in the box rather than on its outskirts. But his first season in the senior squad was far from fruitful, scoring only 5 goals in 17 appearances and yet whilst the youngster was still finding his feet, it wouldn’t be long before he'd grasp the hand fate would deal and establish himself.
Because after long serving veteran Mark Hughes departed Old Trafford for Chelsea in the summer of 1995, Ferguson presented Scholes with increased opportunities in and amongst the first team. He eventually struck up a partnership with Andy Cole in those early months of the 1995-96 season due to the well documented suspension of Eric Cantona.
That season ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ took the Premier League by storm. Regardless of Alan Hansen’s belief that ‘You can’t win anything with kids,’ United won their third League title in four seasons, whilst Scholes went on to better his goal tally and netted a much improved 14 goals in 31 games.
Yet in the midst of his progression, a situation arose that could have potentially re-written Scholes’ footballing story.
In the Summer of 1996, when the red devils attempted to sign Alan Shearer from Blackburn Rovers, the Ewood Park club reportedly demanded that Scholes be part of any transaction. Luckily for United supporters, and football lovers too, the Geordie born striker eventually moved to his hometown team Newcastle United and any potential deal involving Scholes failed to materialise.
We may never truly know how close the deal was to being finalised.
Scholes would remain at Old Trafford. Where now his evolution could truly begin.
A Move To Midfield
In September 1997, Captain Roy Keane suffered a cruciate ligament injury against Leeds, which would rule him out for the remainder of the season.
Whilst the immediate impact was felt by the Irishman himself, it would indirectly alter the fortunes of Paul Scholes in the process; providing him with a career defining opportunity.
Alex Ferguson initially decided to ‘plug’ the gap left by Keane’s absence by moving Scholes back into Centre Midfield - and a deeper creative role.
It wouldn't have been a decision taken lightly. Scholes was still a proficient striker. He had a good eye for goal, a powerful yet precise shooting style and a natural intelligence that allowed him to find threatening positions both in and around the opponent’s penalty area.
On the other hand he was far from prolific. In fact in his first three seasons at United, Scholes made a total of 89 appearances and scored a mediocre 27 times. One goal for every three games.
Whether the position change was one Scholes had requested or a challenge forced upon him, by his manager out of necessity, is unclear. The latter is more likely.
During his first season as a midfielder, Scholes registered 10 goals in 42 games, the most appearances he had made in one campaign at that stage. It was a reflection of how his newly found responsibilities had quickly transformed him into a regular starter and vital linchpin to the first team as a whole.
United ended that season without a trophy for the first time in the Premier League era - something that wouldn’t happen again for four years.
Scholes morphed into both the conductor and a playmaker - and thrived.
As he adapted; Scholes play became less focused on goalscoring, not to say that goals were no longer an important part of his skill set, but the other sides of his game began to take shape.
Ironically his consistency in front of goal improved considerably.
Over the course of the next three years United won five major honours - including an historical treble in 1999 and two further Premier League crowns in 2000 and 2001. Across the trio of triumphant campaigns Scholes scored an average of twelve goals in all competitions.
His wider game also continued to blossom.
He was able to effortlessly switch play with an impressive passing range and to devastating effect, spreading the ball early into the path of United’s two dynamic wingers, Ryan Giggs and David Beckham.
Scholes was also commanding in central areas. Although small in frame, standing only 5ft 6in tall, his intricate passing and speed of thought meant he could easily withstand pressure from opponents, weaving through defensive lines using a similar tiki-taka style that Barcelona would make famous a decade later.
Building on his striker roots, Scholes added a new string to his bow, surging forward into the final third and scoring goals of all different varieties from deep lying positions. But whilst his development was spectacular - there was still even more to come.
Paul Scholes was about to hit his prime.
When Is A Player In His Prime?
A player in their prime is considered to be at the height of their powers.
That golden period of a footballer’s career when performance is at its maximum level.
Some players hit their peak in a debut season then fade and are never heard of again. Many have a miraculous one-off season but fail to sustain their quality in future campaigns. There are others, likely to be the rarest of talents, who are able to perform at a consistently high level over multiple years.
For Goalkeepers and Defenders it may be an impressive run of clean sheets, countless shotstopping displays, wondrous saves and defensive dominance despite an opponent's best offensive efforts.
As a forward, a player is judged more simply on ‘end product’ - whether it be in goal contributions or the act of goalscoring itself.
For creative midfield types like Scholes...being in his ‘prime’ is assessed by:
Involvement in game changing moments
Hitting His Prime
“The season I enjoyed most in my career was that one (2002-03). That’s the one and only time I’ve managed 20 goals in a season."
Oddly Scholes’ prime was partly fuelled by a new challenge.
The midfielder had already set a high standard for himself, performing consistently for a number of years, from the mid-nineties all the way through to 2002 and collecting numerous major honours along the way.
But it was at this point that Scholes experienced a rare dip in form.
United had just lost their grip on the Premier League title for the first time since 1999 to a ruthless Arsenal team; the rising talents of Thierry Henry supported by a strong core such as Patrick Viera and more experienced flair players like Dennis Bergkamp.
During the Summer of 2001 Ferguson signed Argentinian powerhouse Juan Sebastian Veron.
For the majority of the 2001/2002 season, the United manager persisted in playing his new £28 million pound signing alongside his ever-present Captain Roy Keane in the two available central positions, Veron establishing himself as a regular starter and featuring forty times in total.
To accommodate Scholes, Ferguson would favour a 4-4-1-1 formation, playing the midfielder in a more advanced role behind the prolific striking prowess of Ruud Van Nistelrooy.
Despite his time as a forward, Scholes found himself less effective and out of position, unable to lean upon his strengths and disappointingly ended the campaign with just nine goals in 51 appearances.
Yet the following season would be a different story.
During Veron’s second season his progression was often disrupted by niggling injuries which resulted in a loss of form and he found it increasingly difficult to cope with the pace, directness and ferocity of an ever changing English game.
Whilst still pushing forward more often than he’d previously been asked to, Scholes was reinstated as a creative attacking playmaker for large portions of the campaign, and as a result his game was reinvigorated.
That was when Scholes hit his prime.
When Was Paul Scholes In His Prime?
Paul Scholes was in his prime during the 2002/03 season.
He scored 20 goals and registered 6 assists in 52 appearances playing at his peak. Scholes provided masterful displays of creative attacking midfield play, with fantastic passing range and an ability to find the net from both in and outside of the box. In the process he drove Manchester United to their sixth Premier League title in eight years.
Only two other midfielders in the history of the Premier League have managed to register twenty plus goals in a single season; Frank Lampard during Chelsea's 2009/10 campaign and Man City's Yaya Toure in 2013/14.
Scholes even received a personal accolade, named in the Premier League PFA team of the year, a feat he would only ever achieve once more a few years later.
In the years that followed, Ferguson would continue to move Scholes even further back into a deeper lying position. But he would never be as effective as in this spectacular season.
What Made Scholes So Good?
A Paul Scholes firing on all cylinders was a daunting prospect for any opponent.
Often referred to by his fellow professionals as the ‘complete’ midfielder, it was only natural that his list of strengths and attributes are extensive, with notable ability in the following areas....
Intelligence and Vision
“I want to pass like him. Who taught him how to do that?”
One of the deadliest weapons in Paul Scholes’ armoury was his passing range.
He was apt at switching between two different styles of pass. The first was the long range ball; probably his most characteristic skill and one you’ll find on numerous YouTube video highlight reels. This pass was designed to change the flow of an attack, using the width of the pitch to quickly surge towards goal from wider areas.
Much like a quarterback in American Football.
Under-appreciated however was his medley of shorter passes littered throughout every game he played, ‘one twos’ around the opposition, threading accurate balls through a defensive line and simpler shifting of the ball designed to keep possession and generally control the flow of a match; during his entire career Scholes registered an average passing accuracy of over 90%.
As a natural extension of his earlier career, Scholes possessed an eye for goal and had fantastic technique in terms of striking the ball. But his performance in front of goal strangely improved as he worked into less advanced positions and took on additional responsibilities during a game.
Mounting an attack by timing his run from deep, Scholes arrived at the opportune moment to strike with devastating effect. Or even loiter on the edge of the box and feed upon balls that broke to him from poor clearances.
The hidden gem within Scholes’ make up was intelligence; and he had it in abundance.
Not only in his ability to keep possession and well tuned positional play but also key was his speed of thought. Scholes wasn’t without pace but it was his quickness of mind that allowed him to escape the clutches of opponents before triggering an attack with excellent vision and foresight.
Overlooked is Scholes’ work rate and aggression.
Whilst mainly placid, his underlying fiery nature worked both in his favour and sometimes against him; there was weakness in namely his defensive work and more specifically tackling.
As a result his disciplinary record doesn’t make for easy reading.
Scholes picked up 150 yellow cards - that’s six warnings a season. More shockingly he was shown eight red cards across all competitions - approximately a sending off every other campaign.
“At Arsenal me and Patrick (Vieira) didn’t want to face Scholes. We would avoid him.”
However his aggression was far from a negative. In the main it brought an intensity and relentless drive to retrieve the ball, launch fast-paced attacking play and threaten around the opponents final third.
“Without any doubt the best player in the Premiership has to be Scholes. He knows how to do everything.”
So where does Paul Scholes rank in a list of Manchester United’s greatest midfielders?
The criteria for such an order should be heavily based on a range of midfield attributes - like excellent technical ability, leadership and poise on the pitch.
In addition there must be a sense of consistency over time with any player having:
Played for Manchester United over at least a five year period
Made over 150 appearances
Won two or more league titles with the team
In recent memory, there are only a handful of midfielders who fit these parameters.
(Note: We are discounting George Best here based upon the fact that he is predominantly seen as a forward rather than a traditional midfielder type.)
The top 5 are:
5. David Beckham
4. Bryan Robson
3. Roy Keane
2. Ryan Giggs
1. Paul Scholes
It is a difficult choice to make. After all, Ryan Giggs is a bonafide legend at Old Trafford, with the most appearances and assists seen throughout the club’s rich history.
Yet Scholes is the most ‘complete’ - with an array of skills that make him one of the most well rounded players to have ever played the game.
Scholes’ big performances often stick in the memory.
That away goal at the San Siro against Inter Milan in 99. The low drive powered home to secure FA Cup final victory over Newcastle in that same treble winning campaign.
Even in his maturing years. The long range swerving piledriver against Barcelona and ninety sixth minute headed winner at Man City in 2010 (complete with Gary Neville kiss!)
This one club man ended his time at United having made 718 appearances, scoring 155 goals in the process and in the Premier League alone registered 55 assists. Scholes won 19 major honours at Old Trafford; including eleven Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups, 2 League Cups and a pair of Champions League trophies.
Quiet and unassuming off the pitch. Deafening on it.