By Greg Stobart
Robin van Persie may have got Manchester United out of trouble with a hat-trick in their last Premier League match against Southampton, but the Dutchman and Sir Alex Ferguson both cited the introduction of Paul Scholes as a second-half substitute as the turning point in the game.
"I thought we were well out of it until Paul Scholes came on - his vision and consistency of passing gave us control again," said Ferguson after the 3-2 victory, while Van Persie felt ‘everything was ticking' with the 37-year-old on the pitch and conducting proceedings from central midfield.
Ferguson wants United to play a high speed in the final third with quick one- and two-touch passing moves but in the Scot's current 4-2-3-1 formation, he needs Scholes in the deep-lying playmaker role dominating the tempo of matches and pulling the strings.
Scholes demands the ball from team-mates, and his passing success rate of 92.3 per cent since he came out of retirement in January is comfortably better than comparable midfielders like Mikel Arteta (87.7 per cent) or former Tottenham man Luka Modric (85.6%).
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Scholes' passsing range and accuracy creates space for the wingers. Ashley Young and Nani offer penetration - in the form of goals and assists - from one side, while Antonio Valencia was United's most dynamic attacking player last season, scoring four league goals and providing 14 assists.
In Van Persie, United have one of the most rounded strikers in the game, able to score virtually any type of goalscoring opportunity. Not only did he score 30 league goals last season - a feat that made him double player of the year - but he hit the woodwork a further 10 times as he consistently worked goalscoring opportunities.
Van Persie's four goals already for United suggest that he will be the main man to lead the attack, with Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez able back-ups should Ferguson choose to rotate the squad or if the £24 million man succumbs again to well-publicised injury problems.
United have always been better using the full width of the pitch, using two out-and-out wingers to isolate full-back, get crosses into the box and create more space in central areas for team-mates.
The biggest question posed by Van Persie's arrival from Arsenal this summer is where Wayne Rooney finds a natural home in the side. The striker has been United’s go-to man since the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo but the fact he was dropped for United’s second game of the season suggests the 26-year-old is no longer untouchable.
And nor should he be. Rooney remains a very effective player, scoring 27 league goals last season, but he lacks the unpredictability and flair of a natural No. 10, while he does not have Van Persie's instincts in the penalty box as an out-and-out goalscorer.
Rooney's current injury removes the dilemma for Ferguson of having to make a big decision on the forward, especially with Kagawa settling nicely and already beginning to form an understanding with Van Persie. Kagawa scored 13 league goals last term and added 12 assists, mainly operating from central areas for Borussia Dortmund.
While Dortmund did, on occasions, try to play Kagawa from wide positions, the Japanese midfielder's natural instinct is to roam inside, to pick up the ball from someone like Scholes in central areas and act as a link man.
While Rooney believes his best role is behind the main striker, he has not always convinced in that position. It could be that Ferguson has to make a straight choice between Kagawa and Rooney as his 'link man' - and the England striker is certainly not untouchable following Van Persie’s arrival.
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On that night, Nani was the only available out-ball but the Portuguese winger was badly off-form, meaning United rarely threatened the Everton defence and stumbled to defeat as the Toffees denied their visitors space to operate.
Scholes played in that game but, at 37, he will have to be used wisely again this season. With no natural successor in the squad - Tom Cleverley still has some way to go - United may be better off reverting to a more basic 4-3-3 in Scholes’ absence in order to control matches in which they invariably have 60-70 per cent of possession.
Fitness permitting, when Scholes is not playing the likes of Darren Fletcher or Anderson could inject energy into the midfield, with United relying on getting the ball out quickly to the wingers, and Van Persie's devastating finishing.
It is the quick passing game that Ferguson wants to play - and told Dimitar Berbatov he was ill-suited to - in order to expose defences that are well drilled and organised.
In Rafael and Patrice Evra, United also have two ambitious attacking full-backs to add another dimension to their attacks, almost as 'free men' when Scholes or Carrick are in possession. It is interesting that Ferguson showed such an interest in Leighton Baines over the summer as the Everton left-back's crossing is so dangerous and could deliver perfect ammunition for Van Persie and Co.
Either way, United's summer business means this is a new-look team, no longer reliant on Rooney for goals and creativity in the final third.
In fact, with Scholes pulling the strings, Kagawa exploiting the space and Van Persie the best finisher in the country; there may not be room for Rooney to return to the side when he returns from his thigh injury.
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