x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The connoisseur's choice is Scholes

For a decade and half, he has been scoring goals almost regularly and his century of strikes has been achieved almost entirely in open play.

They are not the most sophisticated lyrics, but the rhyme is apt. "Paul Scholes, he scores goals," is not the most imaginative chant coined by a football crowd, but, never the less, it remains accurate. He has done just that for a decade and a half and Saturday's strike at Molineux against Wolves was his 100th in the Premier League. Scholes is the 19th player to reach that milestone. Perhaps more significantly, he is only the third midfielder - after Frank Lampard and Ryan Giggs - and, given the proliferation of set-piece specialists at Old Trafford during his career, penalties and free-kicks have rarely been his domain. His century has been achieved almost entirely in open play.

It was completed in appropriate fashion. The well-timed run and the well-judged finish is a staple of Scholes's play. Despite the shock of red hair and the reputation that precedes him, he retains the ability to drift into space in the penalty area before shooting with explosive accuracy. Sir Alex Ferguson long described him as the best finisher at Manchester United, but an innate understanding of the positioning required means stealth and class are combined in one package.

In the context of a title race, the winner at Wolves was vital: shorn of Wayne Rooney, United were below their best until Scholes intervened. His third goal in seven games seemed typical of perhaps the finest attacking central midfielder of the Premier League era. Yet there was a time when Scholes didn't score goals; not often, anyway. His superlative strike against Barcelona in the 2008 Champions League semi- final was his first for more than eight months. It came part way through a two-season spell that brought a mere five.

Retreating ever deeper, his role as a holding midfielder took him further and further from the opposing penalty area while permitting Scholes to display his enduring mastery of the pass. A comparative glut recently - six this season - is a reminder that Giggs does not have a monopoly on unexpected renaissances. Injuries to Owen Hargreaves and Anderson, the out-of-sorts Brazilian, have contributed, but so has a change of shape.

Although Dimitar Berbatov was the lone striker in the 4-3-3 formation deployed at Wolves, Rooney is the player who has made the system work of late. With the work- rate and the goal return of two players, Rooney has permitted Ferguson to field a third central midfielder. And that man has been Scholes: when Nani was sent off at Aston Villa and United reverted to a central pair, the greater stamina of Michael Carrick and Darren Fletcher made them the obvious choice.

But a trio gives Scholes's ageing legs some leeway and permits him to play. Carrick, in particular, offers an insurance policy when he wants to wander forward. Over the past few weeks, he has done so with great effect. His goals have all been important, from a Carling Cup derby strike against Manchester City to the equaliser against AC Milan in the Champions League. That came from a near-identical position as the winner at Wolves, but was an anomaly: a technically accomplished player missing his kick and seeing the ball go in off his standing leg. Scholes looked slightly embarrassed, but then he often does. He does not have the personality of a maestro: for some, his mastery of the pass is a reason to cherish him, for others the wilful disdain for the trappings of celebrity that so many embrace.

Rio Ferdinand deemed him a players' player on Saturday; Ferguson has long viewed him as a manager's player. He is both and more. He is the connoisseur's choice. @Email:sports@thenational.ae