Retrospective #6: Juan Sebastian Verón – The would-be hero
Overrated. Flop. Failure.
These are words that many believe encapsulate the Manchester United career of the elegant yet frustrating Juan Sebastian Verón. Arriving at United in 2001 for a then British record £28.1 million pounds, the Argentine playmaker was consistently disappointing, the sea of mediocrity that was his United tenure only occasionally giving way to the moments of class and quality one might expect from one of such considerable reputation. For a player of such prodigious talent, it is quite a shame that within two seasons of his arrival he was being carted out to financially invigorated Chelsea where he once again failed to settle, thus offering vindication to his many jaded detractors.
The huge financial outlay was quite out of character for Ferguson at the time, especially considering that Verón was being added to a team that had just won the title three years in a row. Partnered with the £19million spent on a certain Ruud Van Nistelrooy, it seemed Manchester United would dominate for years to come. It wasn’t to be. The Reds failed to retain their title and were crowned champions just once more in four subsequent campaigns. It was the biggest transitional period since the arrival of Sir Alex, and while it would be erroneous to label Veron as a victim of this reality, it would have been interesting to see how the silky midfielder would have fared had he arrived at the end of this evolution as opposed to its inauguration.
The treble winners, Fergie’s second great United team, were the embodiment of a buccaneering 4-4-2 mentality. This was a strategy that had seen them dominate domestically yet, aside from ’99, disappoint in Europe. Whilst nothing can be taken away from the historic Bayern-slayers, it would be fair to say that this was never a team to dominate games on the continent. Their all out attack approach, too much for most Premier League teams, often appeared limited in the European game, where a methodical thoughtful approach was often employed by the most successful teams. In short, United needed to dictate games more to take control. Verón’s arrival was the first step in this transition. Unfortunately he had signed for a team that was not ready or able to accommodate him.
He appeared off the pace and exposed in a midfield partnership, being more accustomed to a three-man midfield at Lazio, where he had the likes of Diego Simeone and Matias Almeyda in front of him to slog it out, while he sat back in the quarterback role. No such luxuries were on offer in this United team. While the likes of Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard would adapt to a new system, this was the start of the millennium in the Premier League, and it would be some years before ‘European methodology’ was embraced. For now, Veron had the likes of Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira to measure up to: fiery midfield generals who ran their legs up into their bodies, shunning a more methodical approach for one of restless ferocity. These were players who did everything and often made the thoughtful demeanour of Verón appear nonchalant at best, lacking quality at worst. This often resulted in the Argentine being shifted out to the wing where in truth, he fared no better.
That’s not to say the Old Trafford career of La Brujita (The Little Witch) was without its high points and he never received the widespread criticism from the club or its fans that he endured in other quarters. In fact his contribution to the team improved considerably in the first half of his second season for the club, particularly in Europe. However he struggled with injury and as the Reds romped to the title in 2003, it was perhaps then that Ferguson questioned Verón’s importance to this United side.
When Chelsea came in for the Argentine with a bid of £15 million pounds the following summer, Sir Alex and the club accepted, which tells its own story. The club had made a £13.1 million loss on the player, which meant he cost United a little over 200k per game in his two years at Old Trafford, not including wages and bonuses, a phenomenal amount of money given the market at the time.
Many felt disappointed with the departure of a player who they felt was just starting to come good. Far more were happy to be rid of him. It appeared they were vindicated as Verón became the forgotten man of the Chelsea ascension, making just a handful of appearances for the first team before being loaned out to Inter Milan for three years. He will forever be remembered as an expensive flop on British shores and his lack of work rate at least could not be blamed on tactics or circumstance, but it cannot be a coincidence that he flourished in Italy both before and after his Manchester United tenure, and is currently doing the business in the Argentine league at the ripe old age of forty.
I, along with many other fans may be somewhat affected by nostalgia, but when looking back at the United time of Juan Sebastian Verón, I see nothing but unfulfilled quality (“I’m not sure he [Verón] will have more of an influence on the team but he’s just a better player [than Eric Cantona],” Paul Scholes, 2001) and like many others will continue to gaze through my red tinted glasses to remember the good times. Yes, for every silky pass or thunderbolt freekick there was a frustrating moment of petulance or laziness but in Seba Verón we had a quality resource that in truth we never knew how utilize.
He could and should have been a great United player. Unfortunately for all parties it was circumstance, not a lack of quality that ultimately decided his United fate.