A magician mistreated by Fergie and Keano: reassessing Juan Sebastian Veron at Manchester United

Juan Sebastian Veron

His stint at Old Trafford is widely regarded to have been unsuccessful, but is it fair to suggest it's one of the worst transfers in Premier League history? Emmet Gates explains why the Argentine deserves more credit

“He’s a f***ing great player,” howled a volcanic Alex Ferguson at the assembled press corps. The year: 2002. The player he was vehemently defending: Juan Sebastian Veron.

Ferguson was unimpressed by questions regarding the poor displays of Manchester United’s then-record signing, and left the journalists present with a succinct parting shot: “Youse are all f***ing idiots.” Press conference over.

Sir Alex Ferguson, Juan Sebastian Veron

Ferguson and Veron, all smiles

The perception of Veron’s stint in England is that he was a colossal failure. Browse almost any list of the worst signings in English football history and you’ll come across his name, sandwiched rather unfairly between Andriy Shevchenko and Tomas Brolin, Bebe and Eric Djemba-Djemba. Such players were usually past their peak upon arrival (Shevchenko, Brolin) or promising a peak they never reached (Bebe, Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson – the list is endless, and not just at Old Trafford).

Veron, however, fits into neither category. The Argentine midfielder was at his peak in the summer of 2001 when Manchester United paid £28.1 million for his services, a record fee in English football at the time. He was a world-class performer and, at 26, had years of top-level football ahead of him.

And yet the question has to be asked: was Veron really that bad in England? His stint at Chelsea was clearly a disaster, but by then his reputation had plummeted; it’s his two seasons in Manchester that are presented as the evidence on which he’s to be forever judged. Is it time for a retrial?

Joe Cole, Claudio Ranieri, Juan Sebastian Veron

Veron signs for Chelsea under future Leicester legend Claudio Ranieri

Leading Lazio to the double

The process that led to United buying La Brujita (‘The Little Witch’) started a year earlier in April 2000, with their defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-finals. The holders had been thoroughly outplayed at Old Trafford by Vicente del Bosque’s side, with the clever movement of Steve McManaman and Ivan Helguera in Madrid’s 4-3-3 formation allowing Fernando Redondo to dismantle the Red Devils’ midfield, gliding into the space created and probing their rearguard with ease and efficiency.

Los Blancos’ midfield trio outsmarted, outfought and, most basically, outnumbered Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. Ferguson, who for most of the 1990s had been a faithful advocate of 4-4-2, decided to change his system. It had just barely secured his side the trophy the previous year but wasn’t in vogue on the continent, and the Scot felt that persisting with the formation wouldn’t help his team climb back to the summit of the European game.

Veron, meanwhile, was in the form of his life at Lazio. He’d joined them the previous summer from Parma for £18m and, as it happened, made his debut against Manchester United in the European Super Cup in Monaco. He scored on his league debut against Cagliari, the first of five in his opening six games.

Veron, meanwhile, was in the form of his life at Lazio. He’d joined them the previous summer from Parma for £18m and, as it happened, made his debut against Manchester United

In one of the most memorable seasons in Serie A history, Lazio recovered from a nine-point deficit to snatch the 1999/2000 Scudetto from Juventus on an infamous final day.

Juve, away to Perugia and a goal behind, were forced to play the remainder of their game in a deluge, following a downpour of biblical proportions that had led to the match being suspended, meaning Lazio’s tie finished first. They’d already swept aside Reggina, winning 3-0 with Veron scoring the second, and had to wait anxiously for 10 minutes to learn of the Old Lady’s result. Perugia held on; Lazio held the trophy.

The previous season, the Biancocelesti had lost the title by a single point to Milan in similar conditions. Lazio lost their grasp on the trophy in the penultimate game of the season, away to Fiorentina.

Juan Sebastian Veron, Lazio

Veron celebrates winning the double with Lazio, Diego Simeone by his side

At the turn of the century, the European game was teeming with talented top-class midfielders. Veron was among the best of them

The difference between the two campaigns was Veron. He was pivotal in orchestrating Lazio’s play from deep but also had a licence to roam forward, something they’d lacked in that failed 1998/99 title bid. He netted eight times in the league – a personal best – and made several key contributions in the Coppa Italia as Lazio won the double.

At the turn of the century, the European game was teeming with talented top-class midfielders. Veron was among the best of them.

A scintillating start in Manchester

The 2000/01 season saw the collapse of the Sergio Cragnotti era at Lazio. Sven-Goran Eriksson left midway through the campaign to start work with England, while Veron and other players were caught up in a fake passport scandal. Veron was eventually cleared, but the threat of a ban from all football affected his form. The midfielder played in only 22 league games as Lazio failed to retain their crown.

By contrast, Manchester United secured a third straight Premier League title in straightforward fashion by wrapping things up with five matches to spare, but they were again tactically outmanoeuvred in Europe. Ottmar Hitzfeld and Bayern Munich got revenge for the 1999 Champions League Final by beating Ferguson’s men home and away in the quarter-finals before going on to lift the trophy. The ease with which Bayern’s midfield bypassed United’s midfield in both games increased Ferguson’s resolve to escape 4-4-2.

Paul Scholes, Juan Sebastian Veron, Ruud van Nistelrooy

Veron wasn't in bad company during his time at United

The manager was set to retire at the end of the 2001/02 season and wanted one more Champions League crown – and to lift it in Glasgow, no less, where the final would be played – to solidify his place in history. Ruud van Nistelrooy had already put pen to paper, and with the Argentine maestro joining him, United looked formidable.

That form continued into September, winning him Premier League Player of the Month and causing Nicky Butt to recall years later that Veron was 'so unbelievable, I thought I’d never play for United again'

Veron wasn’t sold on a move to England at first, but he immediately thrived in his new surroundings, as he had at Lazio. He scored four goals from midfield in his first eight games, and in his second appearance, away at Blackburn, he showed the measure of his ability. With a sea of players in front of him, the big-money man took three defenders instantly out of the game with a slide-rule pass into the path of Ryan Giggs, who scored. It was classic Veron.

That form continued into September, winning him Premier League Player of the Month and causing Nicky Butt to recall years later that Veron was “so unbelievable, I thought I’d never play for United again”. The South American netted a stunning free-kick in a shock home defeat to Bolton, but the 2-1 loss precipitated a run of seven league games with only one win, including three consecutive defeats. Ferguson was constantly alternating between 4-4-2 and 4-5-1, and Veron was never sure where he’d be playing from one week to the next. Suddenly the knives were out, as the £28m signing’s performances dropped.

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