By Omar Soliman
So the transfer saga is over and Robin van Persie is officially a Manchester United player. While the pessimist in me wonders how Sir Alex Ferguson will juggle four top-class strikers, by now I should be aware that he knows exactly what he is doing. The ‘problem’ of managing a strikeforce boasting the Dutchman as well as Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck is arguably one that Ferguson has not had to deal with since the summer of 1998.
We all know how the following season ended and many saw the signing of Dwight Yorke as the key purchase but in my eyes the acquisition of Jesper Blomqvist was just as important for a squad bidding for several trophies, just as Shinji Kagawa is for this season.
Competition for places is healthy, essential for a team that is challenging on multiple fronts. Undoubtedly, injuries were a telling factor last season but such a painful scenario has occured before. Back in 1997/98, United began impressively and built up a seemingly insurmountable lead at the top of the league with an assured progression to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Cracks then began to appear as a settled line-up suffered from a mounting injury list with Ryan Giggs missed more than most. At the time, he was in match winning form but after succumbing to a hamstring strain United’s season was in free fall. A patched up team ran out of steam in the run-in and by the time Giggs returned United were out of Europe and out of the title race as Arsenal swept to a memorable double.
The same mistake would not be allowed to happen again and Blomqvist proved to be an astute signing. The value was not simply in his own performances but in the option to rest Giggs without disrupting the dynamics of the team. Sir Alex Ferguson had seen Blomqvist’s talents first-hand as his destructive wing play was instrumental in IFK Gothenburg’s 3-1 victory over United in the 1994/95 Champions League campaign. After finally getting his man, Ferguson had another option to that left-wing spot to add to his strikers conundrum. Therein lies the beauty of a competitive squad; one below par performance and Ferguson was comfortable in the knowledge that he had someone else to step in and perform.
The Swede only lasted that single season with his final appearance making way for Teddy Sheringham in the Camp Nou yet his impact was noted. He remains one of the unsung heroes of the Treble campaign in that he enabled a key player like Giggs to be rested meaning that the midfield could be freshened up at will. As the games increased in magnitude towards the end of that season, the importance of a competitive squad was seen in the likes of the aforementioned Jesper Blomqvist as well as David May, Nicky Butt, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who all played a crucial role.
Last season injuries hit United’s squad hard, particularly in midfield. With Cleverley and Anderson out for long spells even, Rafael found himself moved up the field for the game against Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford but the less said about that the better. Phil Jones found himself deployed in the centre and showed versatility, considering that his future lies in defence. The stand-ins were fooling few and the results told their own story with back to back league defeats brought in 2012. Adequate back-up was simply unavailable and the second coming of Paul Scholes came in the nick of time to breathe new life into a faltering campaign.
For Jesper Blomqvist in 1998, read Shinji Kagawa in 2012. Another quality addition to the squad and one to partly address the over-reliance on a player, namely Paul Scholes. While the Japanese playmaker has not been bought as a like for like replacement, the signing should mean Scholes is used sparingly instead of his seemingly indispensable deployment towards the end of last season.
For purists, the signing also brings a tangible sense of excitement as the problem area of midfield now has a plethora of intelligent ballplayers in Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, Anderson as well as the burgeoning talent of Nick Powell. Instead of wondering if the likes of Rafael and Jones will be called upon again, Ferguson can pick and choose his pairing or even trio.
United begin this season with an injury-free midfield and several combinations for Sir Alex Ferguson to play with. While we should all cherish what will probably be Paul Scholes’ final season, having competition for midfield slots can only be an improvement on last season. If United are to win their trophy back and return to the top of the European table no squad member can be allowed to feel that their position in the team is safe. That counts for the majestic talents of Paul Scholes now as it did for Ryan Giggs in 1998.