Bursting on to the scene as a precocious attacking talent, with stints at Manchester United as a striker, central midfielder, left midfielder, support striker and deep-laying playmaker, Paul Scholes’ playing career has been as varied as it has been consistent.
Where Scholes’ composure on the ball, positional sense and eye for a goal are perhaps the result of such tactical education under Sir Alex Ferguson, Ferguson will also admit part of the continued generational success at Old Trafford has been down to Scholes’ ability to find an effective role wherever placed in his United teams.
Scholes’ introduction to the first team set-up came primarily as a striker. Making his debut in the 1994-95 campaign, Eric Cantona’s eight-month ban from January saw that season afford Scholes an extended run supporting Andy Cole in attack, netting 15 times inside his first two seasons. Scholes then later shifted to central midfield alongside Nicky Butt – who he would then spend the next few seasons interchanging with – as Roy Keane picked up a cruciate ligament injury in 1997-98. Manchester United’s subsequent strengthening of their forward line, coupled with Scholes’ success in the middle, gave way to his permanence in this role for several seasons.
United and Scholes still benefited from his early stint in attack, as timing runs from the deeper position in midfield, the player developed the knack for arriving late and untracked into the box to consistently finish moves, either with placed or rifled shots, or with strong headers that belied his 5ft7½ height. He trademarked such presence from the middle of the park, becoming characteristic of the team’s attacking focus at the time, as even from midfield, he was regularly able to find the back of the net.
Juan Sebastian Veron’s arrival in 2001 prompted Sir Alex Ferguson’s next tactical reshuffle involving the No 18. Given Veron’s struggles when tried on the left, it was Scholes that Ferguson eventually nominated to interchange with Ryan Giggs in that role, with the other supporting Ruud van Nistelrooy in attack as a second striker in a 4-5-1 system that often mimicked a 4-2-3-1 in possession. Although originally struggling in a return to an advanced position, the 2002-03 season saw his more prominent use in support of van Nistelrooy and where the player admitted it was the most enjoyable position he has had at the club, it was also his most prolific as he reached the 20-goal mark for the only season in his career.
The 2004-05 campaign saw the 4-3-3 system introduced to the team, with Roy Keane placed as the defensive central midfielder and Scholes alongside Darren Fletcher providing the legs in midfield, to close out space and then use possession to bring in the side’s attacking wingers. The approach was aimed at maintaining the team’s work-rate in the centre of the pitch, and releasing Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs into more advanced positions. Interestingly, as Scholes moved to a role with as much defensive responsibility as attacking, the side’s goal-scoring rates dropped, and they would go months at a time not managing more than two goals in Premier League games in a criticised but effective tactical set-up.
Keane’s retirement then saw the third midfield position evolve towards a similar identity as the other midfield roles, as the team developed a possession-retention-based philosophy. As the seasons progressed, Scholes primarily took the deep-laying position and advanced it from simply a ball-winning position to one able to then generate attacks, able to do so off the back of his ability to consistently pick out teammates from distance.
From emerging as a diminutive striker to a midfield playmaker, Scholes made every position a success, such was his technical ability and tactical aptitude. Originally with enough pace and energy to provide box-to-box cover down the middle of the pitch and a lethal right foot that allowed for some memorable goals, as that side of his game dwindled, a composure and range of passing then took precedence.
Able to find players with measured 60-yard cross-field passes or first-time releases with the outside of his boot, his vision was matched with an intelligence on and off the ball. This saw Scholes able to not only always be available in space to collect possession, but then capable once with the ball to hold on to it if a pass was not open.
An unassuming and gracious exit from the game to mirror how he has conducted himself as a footballer away from the public eye, where his penchant for late tackles remains an unwanted example of competitiveness continually getter the better of wisdom, Scholes still exits the game revered by his colleagues.
If and when England begin to develop youth academies to educate young footballers on technique, intelligence and use of a football, Paul Scholes’ will be the example they point to. Ahead of his time meaning he spent his playing career as much an anomaly as a prominent footballer in the Premier League, he retires very much in the mind of those in the game as the future of the sport.