The Sch-midfield promised so much for Manchester United. Morgan Schneiderlin was hailed by some as the dog United had been missing in the centre of the park since Roy Keane left the club, but even more exciting was the arrival of Germany star Bastian Schweinsteiger. Together, it was thought they could inject the bite, tempo and creativity from deep that Louis van Gaal’s United were lacking. But, barely a season and a half later, having completed 90 minutes together on only three occasions, the Sch-party has already been shut down.
Schneiderlin never convinced anyone he could cut it at the level United were aspiring to reach again. He could run, but in a team that often dominated possession, his passing lacked the imagination even Van Gaal looked for. Old Trafford was a step up that the former Southampton midfielder simply could not make.
But proven star Schweinsteiger was making the opposite move. Arriving from all-conquering Bayern Munich as a world champion, the serial winner’s signing created a huge buzz among United fans, who took him immediately to their hearts. And in contrast to the already-forgotten Schneiderlin, Schweinsteiger remains revered upon his departure at Old Trafford, despite making a similarly minimal tangible contribution to United’s rebuild.
The warning signs were there from the start. Questions were raised over Schweinsteiger’s fitness, most notably by then-Bayern boss Pep Guardiola, who had sanctioned the sale to United: “He is a top, top player. Unfortunately, during the last three years he was never in good condition.”
Schweinsteiger brushed off those concerns and United certainly believed he was worth the risk. For £6.7million, Van Gaal, not unreasonably, believed he was getting a leader on and off the pitch. Not yet 31 when he signed, the midfielder was not the clapped-out banger some painted him to be.
But hindsight suggests Guardiola was right to be wary of the amount of miles on Schweinsteiger’s clock. The veteran never looked fully fit at United and never resembled the lean midfield machine he was for over a decade in the Bayern first team.
Schweinsteiger certainly was not the only United star to play within themselves under Van Gaal’s micro-management, but despite featuring in the club’s first 15 Premier League games of last season, he never offered the kind of rampaging performance expected of him. The manager said in December 2015:
“The reason why we have bought Schweinsteiger is because he’s a player who can lead and guide a team.
“It’s not just because of his football abilities that we bought him. Until now we haven’t seen the best of Schweinsteiger, the player I saw at Bayern Munich.
“I believe that in every match we have played he could have played better.”
Van Gaal had spotted that the pace of the Premier League was simply too much for Schweinsteiger. The Champions League, the competition in which he had excelled so often before, offered no respite.
The honeymoon period was over for Schweinsteiger – and Van Gaal too – when the midfielder returned to Germany with United to face Wolfsburg in a make-or-break group finale. Paired with Marouane Fellaini, he was off the pace throughout, offering nothing going forward and even less defensively in front of a makeshift back four which was toyed with by Julian Draxler as the Red Devils were bundled out of the competition. It was the confirmation, if it were needed, that Schweinsteiger was not up to the job of replacing Michael Carrick, despite being two years his junior.
Schweinsteiger’s fitness then became even more of a concern than his form as Guardiola’s warning appeared more prescient than ever. Two different knee injuries ruled the midfielder out of all but two of United’s Premier League matches after the turn of the year. Van Gaal appeared to give up on the notion of Schweinsteiger being a positive influence off the pitch too.
The German was granted copious amounts of time off while recovering from his injuries – so much so that other United players thought he had been allowed to ‘take the piss’. Schweinsteiger was allowed to fly back to watch home games before immediately jetting back to Germany or to other corners of the world to watch tennis star fiancee Ana Ivanovic.
He wasn’t daft, though. Every appearance at Old Trafford was documented on social media as fans continued to lap up the star’s updates. But Jose Mourinho wasn’t fooled and the midfielder became a convenient target for the new manager to demonstrate his power upon taking over.
Schweinsteiger was cold-shouldered by the manager, and literally written off in the club’s accounts but the veteran played the situation better than he did any game in a United shirt. Picking up £200,000-a-week-plus wage, the veteran kept his nose clean and refused to retaliate in the face Mourinho’s iron-fisted treatment.
— Basti Schweinsteiger (@BSchweinsteiger) August 19, 2016
Instead, he went on a charm offensive and while training with the Under-23s, he became the example Van Gaal hoped he would be a year previously. By October, Mourinho’s stance had uncharacteristically softened and he was allowed back on the first-team training pitch.
When Schweinsteiger returned to the Old Trafford turf, he was given a hero’s welcome, despite doing little to justify it. He wasn’t trusted with the nitty gritty of the Premier League, but in 134 minutes split over three substitute appearances and one start in the cups, the 32-year-old matched his record of one goal and one assist achieved in 31 appearances under Van Gaal.
“I wish I could have done more,” said Schweinsteiger in his goodbye message posted for the benefit of the United fans. In hindsight, perhaps all parties might have done things differently, but Guardiola was right.
Schweinsteiger was certainly the player United required, but the Schweinsteiger of old. They needed the midfield machine that was named Bundesliga Player of the Year in 2013, not another club ambassador or the statesman on a steep descent from the peak of the European game.