Manchester United, since the inception of the English Premier League in 1992, has been its most successful club, coming away as champions on 13 occasions, and in the process bringing their overall first-division title haul to a record 20. Within these past two and a bit decades, the club has been home to some of the best talent in the world, from marquee signings both setting the field ablaze or failing to live up to their billing, to home-grown talent sometimes written off in a famous, but ultimately incorrect, manner (“…you can’t win anything with kids…”, indeed). Here’s a look at some of the top midfield players to don a United shirt in the Premier League era. For after all, in keeping with one of the fundamental adages of football, midfield is where games are won and lost:
A quiet, unassuming Welsh boy was offered a contract as a schoolboy and ended up spending his entire professional career with the Reds, ending up a club legend in the process. Plying his trade on the left flank, he quickly turned into one of the Premier League’s first poster boys, and under the stewardship of Sir Alex Ferguson, won 13 League titles along with the Champions’ League on 2 occasions and 4 FA Cups.
He is remembered for some delightful goals, possibly the most memorable of those coming in the ’99 FA Cup semi-final, wherein Giggs floated, from the half line, past an Arsenal defence boasting the likes of Tony Adams and Martin Keown, culminating in a delightful finish and the subsequent creation of the Old Trafford hymn, Giggs Will Tear You Apart Again. He also held the record for scoring in every single Premier League season from its inception to 2012-13. During the twilight of his career, he reinvented his game to that of a holding midfielder, hence enabling him to add to his longevity as a player, finally retiring as United’s player-manager at the age of 39.
Yet another alumnus of the Class of ’92, the man lovingly christened the “Ginger Prince” is widely considered one of the best midfielders of his generation. Like Giggs, he spent the entirety of his professional career as a United player, winning 25 trophies in the process, including 11 Premier League titles and 2 Champions’ League cups: the architect of his team’s path to victory. Flitting from defence to offence was his party piece, with his long-range pile drivers the stuff of Old Trafford legend.
Added to this was the ironclad certainty of knowing where the next pass would come from or go to, and ,let’s face it, a disciplinary record so poor Roy Keane would have been proud to call it his own, what with the tied-3rd highest tally of yellow cards in the Premier League era. Ironically enough, Scholes was always a calming influence on the team; this came to the forefront when he came out of retirement in the 2012-13 season reportedly as a favour to long time boss Sir Alex, with the United midfield struggling to match the expected standards in his absence. Scholes was eventually allowed to retire permanently in peace, having helped United win their 20th League title in May 2013. He now, along with much of the Class of ’92, is part owner of non-league Salford City.
One of the most influential players for club and country during the late 90’s and beyond, David Beckham was somewhere between the pin-up boy for a larger part of the footballing world, a style icon never too far from the paparazzi and an on-field technician matched by few. Whether it be the lob from the centre circle against AFC Wimbledon or his ever-changing hairstyles, the media seemed to love featuring Beckham.
In his prime, he would reportedly spend hours’ worth of effort on his passing accuracy and free-kicks while training: attributes that became evident with his displays of long-range passes, crosses curling in behind the line of defence from improbable angles and his pieces de resistance – fiendishly fizzing direct free-kicks that would leave keepers rooted to the spot. He won six PL titles and the Champions’ League with United, before moving on to Real Madrid. His storied career also saw him become England’s 2nd most capped player. Since his move to MLS side LA Galaxy, Beckham has taken on the role of football ambassador to countries such as the USA, in addition to his philanthropic pursuits with UNICEF.
He needs no introduction. From wiry, buck-toothed teen to global football superstar, philanthropist and, to a lesser extent, fashion icon, Cristiano has seen and done it all. For Real Madrid, for the better part of the past decade, he has just about been their main man – and why not, seeing as he commanded the world’s largest price tag at the time for a professional footballer on his move from United. The team has been built largely around him, despite the presence of many other Galacticos, a feat in itself. It was, however, United that showcased his talent as a twenty-something: with searing pace, an infallible eye for goal and step-overs that would put street footballers to shame, it didn’t come as much of a shock that the Portuguese had won the Ballon d’Or at the tender age of 23; nor has it been highly surprising to behold the ever-increasing list of personal and club honours achieved since then (no, there’s not much point listing them here!).
A talisman for both club and country, it has been a matter of great pride for United fans to see the boy who was once the apple of their eye wage an almost unearthly war with Leo Messi; a matter of great pride tinged with the slightest bit of ruefulness at the thought of what could have been had he stayed, making the Reds’ number 7 jersey his own like few others before him did.
Compromising, indecisive, polite, and a gentleman – none of these words are apt to describe one of the most domineering holding midfielders of the Premier League era. Roy Keane spent 12 years at the club, winning 17 major honours, but is known more for his unforgiving (to the point of brash) style of play and no-nonsense captaincy (and in later years, his managerial method). Never shy of a physical challenge, or subsequently a verbal one, Keane fit perfectly into the mould of midfield general. Having been brought into the club for a then-record fee of 3.75 million pounds, he went on to captain the team from 1997 to 2001 and was an indispensable unit in the United engine room for the duration of Sir Alex’s early heydays, most memorably the treble-winning season of 1999.
Keane was never too far away from the headlines, for good reasons and bad, with the infamous Haland foul bringing with it no little amount of flak from the FA and the larger footballing world. Another famous rant culminated in the coining of the phrase ‘prawn-sandwich brigade’, a staple in the football lexicon today. It must be remembered, however, that despite all the trouble with the media, Keane was a leader of men on the field and is still remembered fondly by the Old Trafford faithful for never taking any prisoners; analogous to the team in influence, possibly, to Claude Makelele or Clarence Seedorf.