Ultimate United Articles
Juan Sebastián Verón They Promised so much.....
A look at a man who became the first player in English football history to break the £25 million barrier, and why it went wrong for him at Old Trafford.
By Philip Meese, Chief Editor
When you add a world class player to possibly the strongest midfield in Europe, surely it can’t go wrong. Can it? In the summer of 2001, Manchester United had just won their third Premier League title in a row. Their midfield of David Beckham, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs was as strong as any in world football. So, just to be greedy, Sir Alex Ferguson splashed a British record fee of £28.1 million on Lazio’s Argentine playmaker Juan Sebastián Verón.
Born into a footballing family, his father, Juan Ramón Verón, actually played against Manchester United for Estudiantes de La Plata in the 1968 Intercontinental Cup and scored against the Red Devils at Old Trafford as the South Americans claimed the trophy over two legs. Verón junior grew up supporting his father’s team and also had a soft spot for Sheffield United, who his uncle, Pedro Verde played for.
Verón came through the youth team at Estudiantes, making his debut in the 1993-94 season in which his club were relegated. The following season saw him make the breakthrough as a regular, and Estudiantes were promoted back to the Primera División at the first attempt. Halfway through the 1995-96 season, an offer from arguably his country’s biggest club, Boca Juniors, took him to the La Bombonera, where he would play alongside Diego Maradona.
1996 also saw Verón make his international debut, and his talent had now alerted a number of European clubs. Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Sampdoria won the race for his signature, for fee of around £5 million. After two impressive, albeit trophyless, seasons in Genoa, and some highly impressive performances for Argentina at the 1998 World Cup, Parma paid £15 million for his services. In just one season at the club, Verón won both the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Cup.
At this time, Italian football was where the big money lay, and Lazio were spending it like it was going out of fashion. They paid Parma £18 million for Verón at the start of the 1999-00 season, and were rewarded with only their second ever Serie A title, the Coppa Italia and the UEFA Super Cup (ironically at the expense of Manchester United). By now, Verón was regarded as the second best midfielder in Italy, behind only Zinedine Zidane. In 2001, Zidane headed to Real Madrid and Verón headed to Old Trafford.
The 2001 close season saw United break the British transfer record twice. Following the £19 million arrival of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Juan Sebastián Verón shattered that record a few weeks later. Although United had been more or less invincible in the Premier League for the previous two years, winning the title almost on auto-pilot, they had come up short in Europe since winning the Champions League in 1999. Teams had worked out how to play against United, and no longer feared the strike force of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke. Changes were needed, and Fergie knew it.
Juan Sebastián Verón seemed like the ideal player to implement the boss’s ideas. The idea was to have van Nistelrooy play up front on his own (which instantly alienated Cole and Yorke) and push Scholes up behind him in what is now known as the “number 10” role, leaving Keane and Verón at the heart of a five man midfield. It was an experiment that failed miserably.
He made his debut against newly promoted Fulham on the opening day of the 2001-02 season, but it was van Nistelrooy who stole the show with two goals to seal a 3-2 victory for United. In the opening games, he looked like a fantastic signing, scoring four goals in the opening two months of the season. He was particularly impressive against Tottenham at White Hart Lane, where United found themselves 3-0 down at half time, only to score five times in the second half. Verón scored the fourth goal in this game, a sublime finish which put the Reds in front for the first time.
United’s form was suffering, however, and the team were struggling to adapt to the new system Fergie had put in place. They were dropping points in games where they were overwhelming favourites to win. Verón’s fourth United goal came against Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford – a game United inexplicably lost 2-1. By contrast, their Champions League form was fine. Despite losing home and way to Deportivo La Coruña (thanks in no small part to some erratic goalkeeping from Fabien Barthez), United made it through both group stages without batting an eyelid.
Surrendering the Title
Verón would only score one more goal all season, in a 2-2 draw away to Derby County, and by this time nobody inside Old Trafford seriously believed that a fourth consecutive title was on its way to Old Trafford. What also didn’t help was the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson was managing his last season before retirement. When he did a U-turn and decided to stay on, United’s league improved to a certain extent, but the damage had already been done as far as the league campaign was concerned.
In Europe, United marched through a quarter-final rematch with Deportivo and Verón was magnificent in the second leg of this tie, but an injury sustained to David Beckham (who had scored 16 goals already that season) ruled him out for the season, and put his World Cup participation in jeopardy. Nevertheless, United were very unlucky to lose out in the semi-final on away goals to Bayer Leverkusen, scuppering Fergusons dream of winning the Champions League in his native Glasgow.
Arsenal rubbed salt in the wounds by winning the title at Old Trafford, ensuring United’s first trophyless season in four years. While van Nistelrooy had been a 36 goal instant success, question marks had been placed over Verón. While his quality was not in doubt, he had not shown the consistency expected of a player who cost almost £30 million.
Following the 2002 World Cup, Manchester United broke the British transfer record again by signing Rio Ferdinand, and much was expected of the team, and Verón in particular seeing as Argentina had been eliminated at the group stage giving him much of the summer to rest. But United started the 2002-03 season in much the same pattern as they had played the previous one. Inconsistent displays saw them lose to Leeds United and Bolton Wanderers in the early months of the season, before a first defeat to Manchester City in over a decade. One newspaper declared “The last time United started this poorly, they were relegated”.
Once again, in the Champions League United were magnificent, and Verón saved his best displays for this particular competition. He scored 6 goals in that season, and 4 of them were in Europe. A particularly memorable strike was against Olympiakos at Old Trafford where he chipped the goalkeeper from outside the box, on one of those rare nights where United wore their away strip for a home fixture.
Following the defeat to City, United’s Premier League form improved dramatically, a thrilling 5-3 win over Newcastle at Old Trafford was followed by the day Diego Forlán made the Scousers cry with his two goals at Anfield. United then had a home fixture against champions Arsenal, a match in which Verón excelled alongside Phil Neville in midfield, and scored the opening goal in a 2 – 0 win. It seemed the Reds had got into their stride just in time.
A month later, United were drawing 1-1 with Chelsea at Old Trafford deep into injury time, until a superb through ball by Verón was met by an even sweeter volley by Forlán to seal the points. Many see that as the turning point of the season as far as the title race was concerned. Arsenal, who looked unbeatable earlier in the season had begun to drop points and United capitalised on this.
As the end of the season approached, Verón had picked up an injury. Of United’s last ten fixtures, he only started one, which was against Real Madrid at Old Trafford and was substituted after an hour. The Reds had picked up some very impressive results in his absence, and once he returned to fitness it made no sense to change a winning formula, one which would see United regain the Premier League crown ten days later.
In the summer of 2003, following some superb pre-season performances by Verón in the USA, the fans were thinking they were finally going to see the very best of the Argentine. When United returned from America, Verón was surprisingly sold to Chelsea for a fee of around £15 million. The Reds had taken quite a financial hit on a player from whom much was expected, but little was delivered.
Juan Sebastián Verón’s spell at Stamford Bridge typified his entire spell in England. He made just 14 appearances for the Blues, in an injury hit spell which ensured that whenever a list of the most expensive Premier League flops is compiled, the Argentine midfielder will be somewhere near the top of it.
When José Mourinho was appointed Chelsea manager in 2004, he immediately sent Verón back to Italy for a two year loan spell with Inter Milan. Back in familiar territory, Verón began to show why so much money had changed hands for his services over the course of his career. He even gained another Serie A title winners medal by default when Juventus were stripped of the 2005-06 triumph following the “Calciopoli” match fixing scandal that rocked Italian football.
He spent the final year of his Chelsea contract on another loan spell, this time with his boyhood club Estudiantes. In 2007, he made the move permanent and would play the rest of his career in his homeland. In 2009, he was instrumental in Estudiantes winning their first Copa Libertadores in almost forty years, and was voted the best player of the tournament. Following a spell in 2012 with Argentine amateur club AC Brandsen, he returned to Estudiantes for the 2013-14 season, and retired at the end of the campaign.
Why didn’t it work out?
It’s been said that Verón couldn’t adapt to the pace of the Premier League, but this is a point thatis hard to agree with. For a start, he was one of the fittest players at the club according to Ferguson. In his early outings for United, he looked quality, scoring some great goals. He didn’t appear to have any limitations to his game. His technique, particularly on set pieces, was first class, he could run all day, could score goals and was fearless in the tackle.
It is true that in England, the game is faster and he didn’t get the same amount of time on the ball that he would get in Italy. It’s also true that some of his best performances came in Europe, but this could be attributed to the formation. It was tailor made for European competition, but didn’t seem to work against the top Premier League sides – both Liverpool and Arsenal did the double over United in the 2001-02 season.
Some of the things Verón could do with a football were just ridiculous; you only had to watch him warm up before a game to realise that. In his 2013 autobiography, Ferguson made reference to what a great player he was, but admitted that he didn’t know where to play him. He wouldn’t stick to just one position, he always wanted the ball and it’s hard to plan around a player like that.
Although he was a magnificent player, he was somebody that United probably didn’t need. Part of the reason their attack had become a bit sterile at that time was that Dwight Yorke seemed to channel his hunger into partying rather than training, Andy Cole was approaching the age of 30 and Teddy Sheringham was 35. Adding van Nistelrooy to the squad was probably all that was needed. It could have just been United trying to prove a point to the world that they were ready to buy the world’s best. After all, if the only midfielder in the league that’s better than you is Zinedine Zidane, then you must be pretty special.
It was an expensive mistake by United, and yet it’s not as though Juan Sebastián Verón didn’t make his mark at Old Trafford. But despite his immense talent, if it hadn’t been for the transfer fee (probably akin to spending about £100 million nowadays), it’s questionable as to how many people would even remember him.
It’s also a good bet that in twenty years’ time, hardly anyone will.
Added by Philip Meese on 29/07/2018 11:37:43