With Or Without You: Manchester United And Paul Scholes

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 08: Paul Scholes of Manchester United scores his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Queens Park Rangers at Old Trafford on April 8, 2012 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Manchester United began the year playing second fiddle to City. By mid-April, they'd opened up an eight-point lead. What happened? Paul Scholes happened.

In case you haven't noticed, Manchester United are sitting pretty atop the Premier League with an eight-point cushion over cross-town rivals Manchester City. On Saturday, Janaury 7th, United were second on goal differential. Paul Scholes would come out of retirement the next day, and from then on United would go on an absolutely silly run, earning 34 of 36 possible points and turning the title 'race' into something of a joke.

It's easy to look at Scholes' return as a red herring - one man rarely makes a team, especially not a 37-year-old one who hadn't played for nine months. But the numbers tell an amazing story.

Scoles has started nine Premier League matches since coming out of retirement. United have won all nine of those matches by a cumulative score of 24-3. The three he didn't were at Arsenal, at Chelsea and against Fulham. The cumulative score there was 6-4, including United's only draw since his return, the famous game at Stamford Bridge in which Chelsea raced out to a 3-0 lead, forcing a certain 37-year-old midfielder to come on as a substitute and rescue the point.

Huh.

As we all know, those statistics are hardly the be all and end all of the debate. United have been knocked out of the FA Cup and the Europa League since Scholes' return, so they're clearly not playing as well in general as their league form suggests, and they may well have padded their differential after Scholes has been substituted himself. Let's dig a little deeper.

How do United play with Scholes on the pitch vs. when he's off? Good question. The attack doesn't change much - they score once every 40 minutes with Scholes around vs. once every 44 with him elsewhere, which might as well be the same number. Their defending is a different story. Manchester United concede a goal once every 183 minutes while Scholes is playing, and once every 54 while he isn't.

The only match that United have lost when Scholes doesn't start was the FA Cup tie at Anfield, and the midfielder came off with the score at 1-1. Meanwhile, their overall record with Scholes not starting is four wins, one draw, and three Europa League losses, including a pair of humiliating performances against Athletic Bilbao in which he didn't feature at all.

The message is pretty simple: United are vulnerable without Scholes and are, more or less all-conquering force with him. Think Sir Alex Ferguson will let him retire again?

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