Like Damien Hirst's dead shark immersed in formaldehyde Paul Scholes shows no sign of ageing. Whether Sir Alex dips his schemer-in-chief in the same pickled preserve as contemporary art's agent provocateur after each game is a matter of conjecture but what cannot be disputed is that some of Scholes' distribution would not look out of place in a gallery setting. Every erudite pass since he decided in January he wasn't quite ready to be viewed behind a rope rather than advertising hoardings has had the masterly control of a man in absolute synch with the gifts bestowed on him.
An SOS call from Manchester United will, barring a dramatic meltdown in the final four games of the season, yield him an 11th Premier League title; the question now is would he answer one from England in the affirmative?
After watching his Manchester United team-mates be given a chasing by Barcelona in the 2011 UEFA Champions League final before a late cameo from the substitutes' bench, Scholes decided his 37-year-old legs were no longer lithe enough to influence big matches. If every central midfielder belittled by Barcelona's diddy-men Xavi and Andres Iniesta hung up their boots the army would have to be drafted in to fulfil the shortage. He exited the stage left in character, silently, but is making quite the noise since his return to tread the boards once more.
For many his age is a sticking point, with a nation's meaningless obsession with retaining perpetual youth no different in football than it is the vacuous pages of Heat magazine. Give it a month and the season's conclusion and we'll be pouring over snaps of his cellulite caught by a pap's lens hidden behind a faraway sand dune.
Imagine for a second Scholes as he is playing now but as a 27-year-old. It would be ludicrous to suggest his performances would not merit a place in an England squad defined by profligacy at major tournaments but yet, ten years on, the clamour for his inclusion is more whispered than demanded. Pablo Picasso said 'youth has no age' and Scholes' infectious performances since returning have borne out such a sentiment out to the extent it's not fanciful to say he's England's most in-form player. One swansong doesn't make a summer and all that but while it would be fallacious to suggest his presence would win England the European Championship, or even dramatically improve their fortunes, it's equally unrealistic to say on his present level he would not deserve a call-up. The alternatives are hardly picking themselves.
On Sunday against Aston Villa we were treated to a masterclass. If Scholes' passing was a cake Gregg Wallace would have launched his spherical mush into it before delivering, in his own words, a 'culinary snog'. Passing doesn't get tougher (to pull off) than this. Whether short or long and this is a skill very few players can carry off, there was a purpose to each and every pass. Like Hollywood, a lot of the balls that share the same moniker are easy on the eye but are ultimately, beyond their aesthetic appeal, pretty meaningless. Scholes doesn't do meaningless and thus, when he chooses to hit Antonio Valencia or Ashley Young with a long diagonal it's only after the prep work he's done beforehand has earned his wide men the necessary space to make their picking up of possession worthwhile.
That's not to say his sweeping passes to Valencia in the first minutes of each half weren't of innate beauty, they were, but rather it's his ability to think not just in the immediate but to work out where the next pass is going, like presiding over a game of chess, that makes him a grandmaster. A capacity to stop time when in possession is due to an inherent ability to find space.
Scholes can make ten yards by walking two and you don't have to 'have legs' to amble a couple of paces. Half the time, if he's particularly tired, he gets the job done by simply standing still. Often when pushing the ball wide he'll move towards the receiver, against the attacking tide, before dropping back a yard to receive possession. It's all simple stuff but so few players do it. As an exact antithesis to the athleticism that is de rigueur in the Premier League, he pats the ball knowingly when he releases it instead of chasing it as soon as it leaves his foot.
In delivering to his team-mates at exactly the right moment he almost directs them where to go next. Every top class club has players whom the rest of the squad show deference in possession and United's charges, even Wayne Rooney to extent, are happy for Scholes to take up that particular mantle. Such willingness to defer in an industry soaked in gargantuan egos is in part, I suspect, due to Scholes' absolute selflessness. How he chooses to manipulate a football is never manifest from an eagerness to stamp his signature on a particular game but rather because it's the right thing to do. Invariably it's the right thing to do.
It is unlikely German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was talking about Scholes when at some point around 1850 he mused 'talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see' but it's an apt description nonetheless.
Cristiano Ronaldo was impressed enough with his team-mate's ability to hit a target no-one else can hit when recently he tweeted an illuminating anecdote about their time together at Old Trafford: "When we were in training I used to do a lot of tricks which hardly any of the players at the club could do. Once I was showing my skills to Scholes. After I finished it, Scholes took a ball and pointed towards a tree which was about 50m from where we were standing. He said 'I'm going to hit it in one shot'. He kicked it and hit the tree. He asked me to do the same. I kicked about ten times, but couldn't hit it with that accuracy. He smiled and left."Like a plumber sorting out a block in a U-bend the satisfaction is getting the job done, not the adulation.
There is a train of thought that says when Scholes plays Michael Carrick becomes too deferential, happy to shun responsibility to go about business in that almost apologetic way of his, but it's not a view shared universally. Carrick, at least to this observer, is never better than when able to utilise his own underrated, intelligent brand of passing. It's when granted the time to think that Scholes' movement has given him that he's at his best. He's only crab-like when he's hurried. In short, Scholes makes his team-mates look better. That's why they love him. Prior to his return Manchester United had the sixth best pass completion rate in the division; they now have the best.
It's a point not lost on Chris Smalling: "He is unique. You can see when there are moments in the game when it is all rushed and he settles it down when he gets the ball. He has the ability to dictate. Come the summer there may well be calls for him to be included in the squad and it will be because he is a player in great form and I'm sure any England manager would want him."
Stats, as we all know, can be manipulated to suit various means but a 100 per cent record in the ten games he's been involved in since returning need not be spun. United's only defeats in this time, twice against Athletic Bilbao and at Wigan, were when he was not picked. With Scholes starting United average 2.70 goals to 2.29 without, while they concede at a rate of 0.30 against 1.04. Against Aston Villa his pass completion rate was 94 per cent; to give it some context Stephen Ireland's was 75.6, Barry Bannan's 77.3% and Gary Gardner's a dismal 66.7 %. Prior to Sunday, outstanding performances against Blackburn (97%) and QPR (95% - from 120 passes) had Sir Alex admitting a player who may not be at his disposal next season is key to this season's title race. His pass rate per minute (1.04) is currently the third best in Europe and we know all about his accuracy.
|With Scholes starting||Without Scholes starting|
|Average Goals For||2.70||2.29|
|Average Goals Against||0.30||1.04|
|Points per game||3.00||2.17|
Given it's been eight years since Scholes last pulled on an England shirt and Ferguson has said there's 'no chance' he'll do so again, the odds look stacked against whoever succeeds Fabio Capello from convincing him to make a second remarkable comeback of the campaign. Certainly Scholes' comments about international football in the past, having been shunted out to the left wing all too often, are hardly encouraging either. In his brief period out of the game, when his rhetoric became as grumpy as his tackling, he offered a cutting assessment of his would be team-mates.
"The England team these days are treated like world superstars from what they do at club level. I don't think that helps when they go to England (duty) because they're all mollycoddled and pampered. They're treated like they're world champions before actually being a successful team to do that. The England manager changes that often there can never be that stability and I think managers just go out for the England job for the money these days."
These are not the words of a man itching to win a plane ticket to Poland and Ukraine but these declarations of disdain towards the 'Golden Generation' were made before he fell back in love with the game. Before he'd realised just how much he'd missed it. This time it is really is a final swansong and to see him play with the abandon of a man who knows there really is nothing to lose, having shed the conservatism that saw him drop too deep in his final few months before retirement, gives hope he might have a second change of heart. Jeez, he's even shooting (and scoring) again these days.
Of course there are those that say he would be in grave danger of dirtying his legacy by overstaying his welcome, with Jamie Carragher's abject performance at last the World Cup a stark warning of what can happen when the ego batters the head into submission.
But then there are those that said Manchester United were desperate to take him back and we know how that particular story looks like concluding....
Would you like to see Paul Scholes in England's Euro 2012 squad?