A magician mistreated by Fergie and Keano: reassessing Juan Sebastian Veron at Manchester United
“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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
The continental conundrum >>>
The continental conundrum
His Champions League performances, however, were of the quality that everyone expected. The slower tempo of the European nights suited Veron’s style of play
Veron was under no illusions that his form was patchy. The difference in Italian and English training cultures had a big role in his physical decline; he told FFT several years ago that, “I arrived from a country with intense pre-season training to a country where football matches are the way they train. After December, I suffered from a lack of a fitness base and I’d pick up injuries.” Veron struggled with an Achilles tendon injury in the second half of the 2001/02 season.
His Champions League performances, however, were of the quality that everyone expected. The slower tempo of the European nights suited Veron’s style of play and United qualified from the two group stages with relative ease. He was then inspirational as they saw off Deportivo La Coruna in the last eight.
And so to the semi-final, against the Bayer Leverkusen of Lucio, Ze Roberto and Michael Ballack. United drew 2-2 at home and 1-1 away to lose on away goals – a particularly bitter pill for Ferguson to swallow given the venue for a final that was within touching distance. Days after the disappointment of that second leg in Germany, Ferguson – who’d already reneged on his plan to retire – launched into his foul-mouthed defence of Veron.
The player came under extreme scrutiny in England. A lackadaisical touch in a home match against Middlesbrough saw him dispossessed by Benito Carbone, who teed up Veron’s former Lazio team-mate, Alen Boksic, to score. United lost, and Roy Keane is said to have unleashed a tongue-lashing at Veron in the dressing room. Manchester United ended the season third; their worst finish for 11 years.
An unsung hero
An injury sustained against Leeds in early March effectively ruled Veron out for the rest of the season. He was rushed back for the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Real Madrid, but was mostly ineffectual
The 2002/03 season marked a vast improvement for Veron. He continued to play magnificently in Europe, scoring four times in the first group phase and dictating play with the range of passing for which he was renowned in Italy. His Premier League performers improved in the absence of the injured Keane. He began to look more like the orchestrator he’d been at Lazio and Parma.
One standout performance came in the 2-0 win over champions Arsenal when, with Butt, Keane and David Beckham all out, he had to partner Phil Neville in midfield. His assist for David Beckham’s lobbed goal against Birmingham weeks later wasn’t bad either.
An injury sustained against Leeds in early March effectively ruled Veron out for the rest of the season. He was rushed back for the Champions League quarter-final second leg against Real Madrid, but was mostly ineffectual. His final appearance came as a substitute against Charlton.
The way in which Manchester United released Arsenal’s seemingly tight grip on the 2002/03 Premier League title in the Argentine’s absence, having been eight points adrift at one stage, didn’t reflect well on Veron, even if he did collect a winner’s medal. It’s over-simplistic thinking, however. United gathered momentum because they could return to the 4-4-2 system they knew so well (it still worked in England, after all, if not in Europe). Furthermore, they didn’t lose a single league game after Boxing Day and Veron started in seven of those 18 matches. He wasn’t holding the team back.
The consensus is that Veron was a failure at Manchester United, but that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
It’s true that his first league campaign wasn’t a success, as Ferguson laboured to fit his new purchase into the side while Beckham, Giggs, Keane and Paul Scholes slowly adapted having never played in anything other than a four-man midfield. Scholes, in particular, talked of how he hated playing as a No.10, pushed further forward to accommodate Veron, the outsider in a tight-knit midfield group who knew each other’s games.
The following season, with the addition of Rio Ferdinand in defence and a greater understanding of the intricacies of 4-5-1, United’s midfield was more cohesive
Also, at Lazio Veron had freedom to roam, safe in the knowledge that protecting him was either Diego Simeone or Matias Almeyda, in front of a defence containing Alessandro Nesta. That wasn’t the case at United in 2001/02. Their backline was shambolic, Jaap Stam’s sale leaving a gaping hole that 36-year-old Laurent Blanc could never fill.
The following season, with the addition of Rio Ferdinand in defence and a greater understanding of the intricacies of 4-5-1, United’s midfield was more cohesive. Scholes and Van Nistelrooy scored 64 goals between them in all competitions.
Veron was the right man at the wrong time for Manchester United. He could never fully impose his will on a midfield featuring the force of nature that is Roy Keane; indeed, it’s no coincidence that Veron’s best spell came when the Irishman was injured. Keane himself admitted, “I was very hard on Seba and I was wrong. When he came, I was expecting miracles, and when they didn’t happen I was always homing in on him.”
It would be wrong to dismiss the context as an excuse – not least as Veron didn’t actually flop at Old Trafford, as so many think – but Ferguson, too, has to take part of the responsibility. Whether he even needed Veron, as opposed to a massaging of the options he already had, is debatable, and when the midfielder did arrive, Ferguson needed to make him the fulcrum of the side, the way that Eriksson and Marcelo Bielsa had done with such success with Lazio and Argentina. Ferguson attempted to simply slot Veron into midfield, like a piece from the wrong jigsaw.
Clearly Veron wasn’t a huge success at Manchester United. But nor was he a failure. And, when looking at the various things that stood in his way – the wrong tactics, the difficult personalities, the new training culture, the injuries, the pressure of the massive record fee – it’s testament to his ability that his time at the club wasn’t, in fact, a disaster.