Juan Sebastian Veron is considered to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s one truly expensive flop purchase in the transfer market. He always makes his way on to lists of United’s and even the Premier League’s worst ever signings and so it is easy to forget that he arrived as a bona fide world-class player, much desired around Europe, who was expected to be a key man in Manchester United’s domestic dominance as well as getting them back to another Champions League final. So why didn’t he?
Veron joined a United side in 2001 which had just won the three previous Premier League titles and the 1999 Champions League as part of the famous treble. Veron cost a then British record £28m from Lazio, who had themselves completed a domestic treble in 2000. He was their key player, the driving force in their central midfield in a team managed by Sven Goran Eriksson who’s own achievements at the club won him the England job.
Veron was a technically sublime player. He scored and made goals but his primary strength was his full range of passing. At Lazio he would dictate the tempo of the team’s moves. When receiving the ball he always had his head up looking for the next pass, which kept Lazio ticking along at a pace that their opponents could rarely cope with. He wasn’t blessed with pace but he was a hard worker. He was a pure playmaker, wanting everything to come through him, and if it did then things were invariably good for Lazio. He was, in every way, the fulcrum of their team. An absolutely complete package of a central midfielder.
With this in mind, it’s not hard to see why Ferguson was tempted. Since winning the Champions League in 1999, Manchester United had suffered consecutive quarter-finals defeats against teams that had this kind of midfield centrepiece. In 2000 they lost to a Real Madrid side that had the obscenely talented Fernando Redondo at it’s heart. Indeed, the most dramatic piece of skill in the famous tie saw him do this to set up the winning goal. For all the talk of Ronaldo it was Redondo who Ferguson was purring about after the game. In 2001 they were put out by a Bayern Munich team that buzzed around the talent of Stefan Effenberg. Effenberg played ‘arrogantly’ with his head up, making everything happen that was good. On both occasions the side that put United out went on to win the Champions League in the very same season.
Ferguson wanted his own one of these and identified Veron as the man to fulfil the role. The strange thing is though, he already seemed to have one in the form of Paul Scholes. Scholes’ partnership with Roy Keane was in full bloom in the middle of United’s 4-4-2 with David Beckham and Ryan Giggs either side, the epitome of United’s Premier League achievement. So why did Ferguson need Veron? Well, he didn’t. He didn’t need him, but he wanted him. This was a time when pretty much all that United were playing for was the Champions League seemingly, having coasted to three titles in a row. The thing to remember with 2001 Paul Scholes is that he was, although a fabulous player, still developing his tactical understanding. He wasn’t the playmaker that he became in later years and at this point was more of the goal getting bustling all action version of himself. Veron seemed to be the ideal candidate to plug in next to the ferocious Roy Keane in Europe. He would also have given Ferguson the tactical flexibility to play all three of them at the same time and dominate possession.
But Veron never became the United fulcrum. So, why? The oft forgotten thing is that in Europe he was excellent for United, particularly in the 2002/03 campaign where he was the absolute main man. As we’ve seen though, in the league with Scholes and Keane also options, Veron wasn’t the main man. He wasn’t the centre of things like he had been at Lazio and because of this, found it difficult to impose himself. Veron had never been a complimentary player in Italy and was never able to come to terms with that role at United.
It’s often said that his main problem was adapting to the pace of the Premier League and although this was true to an extent, this was made much harder for him because it wasn’t him setting the tempo. Ideally, Veron would have played at a slower tempo than the hectic one often set by Keane and Scholes, who both had a much more direct style. Perhaps this was Veron’s failing but it is important to remember that he joined with Keane not only at the peak of his on-pitch powers but his off-field influence. He was the highest paid player in the land and had been at United for nearly a decade. It was almost impossible for Veron to come in to a club like United and change the way they played with Keane’s dominant presence to overcome. As it was, Veron tried to fit in to the quicker style he was having to play and couldn’t thrive. He was second fiddle and it completely neutralised his style.
In the end Veron was never going to be successful at United. He joined the team to play the specific role as the fulcrum in Ferguson’s team that would win the Champions League. However, he couldn’t ever become that when stepping in to such an established team with as imposing a man as Roy Keane to have to overthrow for leadership of the team. Veron had spent his career being the main man but he could never be that at United and so was never in a position to recapture his Serie A form. He flopped at Chelsea for the same reason but has achieved great success in Argentina back in his role as the focus of the team.
You can read more original, research based content daily by Max at thefootballspace.com