Veteran Players at Manchester United: Risk vs Reward?

The signing of Cristiano Ronaldo by Manchester United this summer has been the main story in football for several weeks, with everyone having an opinion on the signing, weighing up the pros and cons of signing the striker, regarded by many as one of the best players of all time. 

One of the key talking points of the transfer has been the age of Ronaldo, at 36, the €13.5 million United paid for him is the most expensive fee ever paid for a footballer over the age of 35. For some, even for Ronaldo, this was as risk due to many players retiring around 35 in football, however at United, there is a history of players achieving great things while in the perceived twilight of their careers. 

The most obvious example of this would be Ryan Giggs, a player who was an Academy graduate at the club, Giggs won all there was to win at United before retiring at the age of 40 and becoming Louis van Gaal’s assistant coach, as reported by ESPN. If we perceive over 35 as the benchmark for players in the twilight of their careers, Giggs achieved a tremendous amount during that period. 

Most notably, at the age of 35, Ryan Giggs was awarded with the PFA player of the year award, a particularly prestigious award that is voted for by fellow players in the league, with the Guardian reporting it as the ‘highest honour possible’.

 During this season Giggs made 47 appearances for the club, scoring four goals and getting 17 assists across all competitions. During this season he played a crucial role in getting Manchester United into another Champions league final as well as winning the Premier League, League Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup. 

The fact that Giggs won this accolade in a season where United achieved so much, indicates how crucial he was to the success of the team, and shows that even in the perceived twilight of his career, Giggs was more than a valuable player for United. Many fans will be hoping that Ronaldo can replicate the longevity of the Welsh winger. 

Teddy Sheringham is another footballer who had the best season of his United career, in terms of goals and assists, when he was 35. In the 2000/01 season Sheringham scored 21 goals across all competitions, significantly helping United win the Premier League that season. On top of this, Sheringham was awarded the PFA player of the year award, becoming the oldest player to do so at the time, as was reported by Sky Sports

Once again this shows how valuable veteran players can be at a club like United with both Giggs and Sheringham winning one of the most prestigious personal accolades in football at an age many pundits and fans deem a player ‘finished’ at the highest level. 

More recently United have been criticised for signing players for cheap prices who are in their 30’s, most notably Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2016, and Edinson Cavani in 2020. Both players were signed on high wages and were in their mid 30’s at the time of signing, leading to criticism on both. 

However, both strikers have played vital parts during their time at the club, with Ibrahimovic leaving the club having scored 29 goals in 53 appearances and helping the club towards the EFL Cup and UEFA Europa League trophies, as reported by Manchester Evening News.

Similarly, Cavani’s signing was met with suspicion from fans and pundits alike, with Gary Neville labelling the transfer of the Uruguayan ‘very last minute’ as reported by Sky Sports. However, Cavani soon changed opinions, scoring crucial goals all through the 2020/21 campaign, ending with 17 goals and 6 assists in 39 appearances. Cavani once again proved that signing an experienced player can be hugely beneficial to a club like United.  

These examples are of course highlighting the instances when players towards the end of their career have been a success for United, and there is no doubt that at other times this strategy has not paid off for the club, in recent memory players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Alexis Sanchez both arrived at the club in their twilight, with big expectations, and did not live up to them. 

 Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has proven during his time at manager that his main focus is developing a young team that can go on to great success, shown through the integration of Mason Greenwood and the more recent signing of youngster Jadon Sancho

However, he has also highlighted how key experience is for a team like United with the signings of Harry Maguire, Cavani and now Ronaldo. Solskjaer commented on the suspicions of Ronaldo’s age stating ‘I am sure he likes all the talk about being old. Make it personal and he will show what he can do.’, as reported by The Guardian

There is no doubt that Ronaldo can go on to replicate the likes of Teddy Sheringham and Ryan Giggs during his second spell at United and bring much success to the club. The striker has already gotten off to the perfect start, scoring two in his second debut against Newcastle United at Old Trafford. 

With no sign of the Portuguese star slowing up any time soon, United fans will be hopeful that once again one of their veteran players can prove the doubters wrong. 

Written by Jennifer McCord

Zlatan Ibrahimovic left an indelible mark at Manchester United

Zlatan Ibrahimovic signed for Manchester United as a free agent in the summer of 2016 after leaving Paris Saint-Germain at the end of the 2015/16 season. The Swedish international signed a one-year contract at the Old Trafford club and because of his age, it was suggested that he would not achieve much at the club. That will be something that the striker looks back on and laughs at, even into his old age. The Swede just fit in at United immediately and showed his class and leadership – which was needed.

United’s third-choice goalkeeper, Lee Grant, who arrived after Ibrahimovic left the Old Trafford club, has lifted the lid on what it was like at the club with Zlatan there, seemingly in the perspective of the players who were there during the Swede’s 21 months at the club. Ibrahimovic was offered a new one-year contract at the club at the end of his first season, which ended on the sidelines after suffering ligament damage to his right knee in a UEFA Europa League match, missing the rest of the season.

During his short-lived career at United, Zlatan made a total of 53 appearances, scoring 29 goals and 10 assists, which at the age of 36, which was his age when he left the club, was a great achievement. It was a shame that it was not going to work at United with the player moving onto LA Galaxy in the MLS as a free agent. It was good to see the player actually play for United, which should have happened years ago and could have resulted in more trophies for the club and for the man himself.

Grant, who signed for United in July 2018, almost four months after Zlatan departed for Los Angeles, heard many stories from his new teammates about Zlatan, a player that he had faced in October 2016 when United drew 1-1 with Stoke City. The 37-year-old goalkeeper recently spoke to the official Manchester United website about Zlatan, albeit through stories passed on by his teammates, showing the indelible mark that the Swede left at the Theatre of Dreams on his departure, something the player will be proud of. Grant said:

“His period at the club had just come to an end but the lads would talk about him constantly. ‘Do you remember when Zlatan did this?’

“‘Do you remember him getting on to such and such in training and he nearly made him cry?’ ‘Do you remember that thing he does, the kung-fu kick over his head?’

“‘Do you remember Zlatan scored that goal? Do you remember when he nutmegged that guy and absolutely took the [micky]?’

“I thought, ‘Oh my god, who is this Zlatan character?’ but that was what it was like all the time.”

Grant then spoke about his only meeting against Zlatan, a 1-1 draw with Stoke City, Grant’s former club in October 2016 – a match in which Anthony Martial opened the scoring in the 69th minute of the match with Joe Allen equalising eight minutes from time. The United goalkeeper spoke confidently about his match against this Zlatan character who his teammates seemed to miss dearly, always reminiscing him. Grant then said, jokingly:

“I had him on toast. He’s in my pocket here somewhere. Of course, I wouldn’t say that to his face. If I was training against him, I would imagine he would have me on toast more than I had him on toast but that was a good day for me.”

Ibrahimovic is now back at AC Milan, in what is his third stint at the club having left LA Galaxy in November 2019. During the January transfer window, the Swede signed for Milan for the remainder of the season. On the 1 August 2020, still playing competitive football because of the coronavirus pandemic and the three-month delay on world football, Zlatan became the oldest player to have scored 10 Serie A goals aged 38 years and 302 days, breaking the record of Silvio Piola which was set in the 1950s. Ibrahimovic has played a total of 761 club matches, scoring 467 goals and 185 assists during his career so far, which may well continue.

Written by John Walker

Anthony Martial left angry and let down after losing the number nine shirt four years ago

Manchester United forward Anthony Martial was let down by the decision to remove his number nine shirt when Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived at the club in the summer of 2016 and it was something that dented his morale at the time. It was something that then manager Jose Mourinho was criticised for, but seemed to weather.

During his time at United, Ibrahimovic scored 29 goals and 10 assists in 53 matches before leaving for LA Galaxy in March 2018, ending his time at the Old Trafford club, which at the time of his arrival was heavily criticised because of the player’s age. He did well at the club and despite an injury, helped United to an EFL Cup and UEFA Europa League double.

Former United left-back Patrice Evra stated that the removal of the number nine shirt dented Martial’s confidence after a fine start at the club in which he scored 17 goals and nine assists in 43 appearances during there 2015/16 season, a season which also saw the end of Louis van Gaal, with United winning the Emirates FA Cup.

This season, Martial seems to have improved, scoring 19 goals in all competitions so far, adding six assists, making 38 appearances in total. Against Sheffield United, the Frenchman scored his first hat-trick for the club and United’s first since Ibrahimovic scored one against Saint-Etienne in February 2017. Martial was not seen as a central striker whilst Mourinho managed the club, also removing him of his favourite number. Evra said:

“I think he had a brilliant start when he played under [Louis] van Gaal. hen I remember one episode, unfortunately I think they let him really down when they swapped the shirt with Zlatan.

“I remember we were in the national team and he received a call from the club and they say you have to give your No. 9 shirt, and he was like, ‘no, absolutely not’.

“But after, Mourinho contacted him to say Zlatan is going to take the No. 9 and you’re going to take the No. 11. ‘It’s not like I’m going to say Martial’s been not playing well because of that number shirt, but it started from there.”

Mourinho was sacked in December 2018 and Solskjaer was brought in as the caretaker manager, then given the job permanently the following March. Also, with Ibrahimovic out of the picture, Martial was given his old shirt number back and seems to be heading in the right direction once again. Evra concluded by saying:

“I remember at the beginning of the season I went to Carrington and Martial was really upset and really frustrated because he was injured.

“And I was like, ‘wow, Anto, that’s really impressive because last time I saw you weren’t that enthusiastic, and now when you’re injured you want to come back really fast to help the team’.

“So, for me, from now I think United are going to get the best of Anthony Martial. Not only because he scored his hat-trick but his attitude is where you want to play for Man United. Martial can destroy any defender if he decides.

“That’s why it’s really frustrating. Many people know his talent, you can ask Wayne Rooney, he’s one of the best No.9s. But he needs that aggressiveness to score goals, that anger, it’s more about his personality.”

copyright: JW