Dec 27, 2009

Manchester United: Five Midfielders for the Decade

As the decade ends with its final holiday season, why not get nostalgic?
Continuing the evaluation of Manchester United's most significant players this century, we move forward from defense into midfield, where United's most famous players plied their trade.
Instead of ranking players based on team trophies, this ranking subjectively prioritizes the significance and influence players had not only on the pitch, but in the dressing room and far beyond into popular culture.
Of course, special weight is given to the most important factors: individual form, positive manipulation of matches, appearances, and consistency over the last 10 years.
In short, these rankings attempt to signify the overall importance of United's midfield players since the turn of the century.

No. 5: David Beckham

David Beckham bottoms the list as perhaps the single-most important figure in United's evolution into a global force and brand in world soccer.
Form-wise, his best years with United were likely in the late nineties, where he played with abandon. As his career progressed, Beckham became complacent no longer growing the weaker aspects of his game (dribbling, open play shooting, etc).
It's arguable that brand Beckham did more to elevate Manchester United into one of the world's most profitable clubs than all the work Alex Ferguson did in the twelve years prior to Becks' emergence; a testament to the popular effect of celebrity culture.
He was English, handsome, married to a British super-celebrity, and, less importantly, one of the best players in the world entering the new millennium, as United won the historic European treble in 1999.
The 02/03 season would be his last. In his last game for United, he scored one of the best free-kicks in his career against Everton. From the edge of the box, on the right side of the pitch, Beckham curled his shot majestically to the far post, completely fooling the hapless Richard Wright.
Despite only winning three Premiership titles this decade with the club, Beckham's influence in elevating the club to the world stage around the turn of the century is of such importance that it may retain relevance entering the next one.

No. 4: Roy Keane

While players like Beckham brought superficial interest from around the world, Roy Keane embodied the core of United's playing ethos.
Perhaps the most fearsome central midfielder of his generation, Keane provided the blunt aggression in a side full of flair.
The armband around his bicep was always just a cursory gesture. Keane led by example, both through his own actions and fierce condemnations of his teammates on the pitch.
Named 2000 PFA Player of the Year, like Beckham, Keane won three Premiership trophies with United this decade, totaling seven top flight triumphs for his career. He also won the FA Cup with United in 2004.
Ultimately, age, injury, and frustration caught up with the pugnacious Irishman, who left the club by mutual consent in 2004.
His name still rings out each match day at Old Trafford.
Still a follower of the club, Keane currently is satiating his management chops at lesser clubs until, possibly, his former manager Ferguson vacates his post at United.
Though at times overly emotional, the forthright former midfielder could be just the right blend of intelligence, passion, and relative youth, to Admiral his beloved Red Devils as manager sometime in the new decade.
As a bonus, here are Keane's recent patriotic comments regarding Mark Hughes, from SkySports:
"I think when you're involved with a club like United, as Sparky was over his career, you shouldn't go to a club like City. I think you should try and get employment somewhere else. I think Sparky is probably better off."

No. 3: Ryan Giggs


Giggs makes this compendium in large part to his tenure.
But even a cynical Giggs naysayer has to admit his worth to United over the decade.
His best individual years with the club, though, precede the 21st century.
From 2001 to 2003, the Welsh Wizard underwent his worst period of form throughout his entire career, thus far.
I can personally attest to him being booed off the pitch in a Worthington Cup match against Blackburn just after New Years, 2002, so abysmal was his form.
But, after taking up Yoga in 2003, Giggs found a new lease on his footballing life.
He's also helped by his decision--cultivated by necessity--to reinvent his role in the squad as a central midfielder.
He lacks the pace he once had. He lacks the trickery he once possessed. But he still has a great footballing brain and a good left-foot in which he solely uses to pick out passes.
He's not a world-beater. He's not the best or most effective player at the squad, currently, not even really close. But he's still very useful for one of the best teams in Europe, and at 36, that's quite an accomplishment.

No. 2: Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo comes in second here, which seems to be his tendency this year.
Ultimately he may be remembered as the greatest player to ever play at United.
He was joyously naive when he arrived in Manchester, and so were we. It took at least three years before he became pompous and whiny, and those three years will always belong to United fans who saw him in his purest, rawest form.
Whether or not he continues to evolve dictates where his best years will have been ultimately spent.
But, despite only being in Manchester for five years, he makes the grade above Giggs for many reasons.
Firstly, Ronaldo filled an immediate gap on the pitch and off it, arriving the summer Beckham left. In Ronaldo, United had another good-looking, flare player who appealed to casual and hardcore fans alike. In fact, they had, successively, the two most marketable players of the decade in the two number sevens.
Just a few of Ronaldo's most memorable goals for United, besides innumerable free-kicks, consist of a triple step-over juke-burger served rare to Ricardo Gardner against Bolton in 2006, a towering header against Chelsea in the Champions League final of 2008, and his last strike for United, a 40-yard howitzer against Porto, sending his team through to the final again in 2009.
Despite scoring 42 goals in 2007-2008, claiming the Ballon d'Or and FIFA WPOTY honors, among hardcore fans, Ronaldo's best year in red was actually the preceding year, 2006-2007.
He is the fastest player in the world with the ball, according to a recent study.
He was the best player for United for several years, including through two of his three EPL championship campaigns and United's European triumph (United's best player in 2008-2009 was Vidic).
However, in his last year with United, he was off-form consistently, always whining at teammates, blaming referees, and generally being a huge plonker. We know, in hindsight, that he had already agreed to a Madrid move by then.
Now, as we enter 2010, he may not be considered the absolute best in the world, he is still the most dominant. His aerial presence, emotional leadership, willingness to attempt and convert penalties, dribbling, ambidexterity, and dead-ball striking abilities make him the most complete player in the world still, if not the most technical.

No. 1: Paul Scholes

You never meet a guy who doesn't like Paul Scholes.
He's practically a comic book superhero.
No one else maintains modesty with a flying slide-tackle. No other players pass laser-guided missiles shyly. No one has the audacity to fire long-range howitzers cheekily.
Yup. It's been good having Paul Scholes through the years.
He started the millennium in his physical prime. He's made 387 appearances for United since.
My brightest United memories of the last ten years consist largely of yelling "Scholesy!" at my computer screen each time the Ginger Boy flew cheekily in for a flying ninja header or uncorked a long-range belter.
Last year, against Fulham in the Premiership, Scholes had perhaps the greatest individual performance of his career, completely dismantling the brow-beaten Londoners.
Alex Ferguson's toughest task before each ride off into the sunset will be replacing the inimitable Scholes, something he is finding this season much easier said than done.

Scholes' masterclass against Fulham in Feburary 2008:


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