By the time the season starts, Bastian Schweinsteiger will be 31. That’s the one big worry for Manchester United after its signing of a midfielder who, in pretty much every other way, seems like the perfect addition to its midfield after a season in which he started only 15 games in the Bundesliga.
For every Gianfranco Zola who came late to the Premier League and rapidly looked at home, there are countless examples of established players who came to the Premier League late in their careers and struggled, most recently and most pertinently Radamel Falcao. Schweinsteiger insists he is over the ankle injury that so restricted him last season.
“Of course, I had a tough World Cup so after that I was injured until I think end of October,” he told MUTV. “But then I had great weeks and months with Bayern, I was not injured and I am feeling great now at the moment. Everything is fine and I'm looking forward to giving my best for Manchester United.”
And yet a doubt must linger: why, after all, is a player who has spent his whole career at a club leaving now? That Schwinesteiger and Iker Casillas should leave their respective clubs at the same time may be coincidence, but it feels like something more, as though the era of the one-club men is coming to an end.
There has rarely been much sentiment in football–“nobody,” as the former Derby manager Harry Storer once told a young Brian Clough, “ever says thank you”–but the economics of the game have made it more brutal than ever. The coagulation of talent at the top means there is no space to give a club legend a place once his standards start to slip; whatever value he still has must be converted immediately into cash.
Which is not to say that Schweinsteiger’s standards have necessarily slipped yet, or even that Bayern thinks they will in the next year: merely that with one year left on his contract, there was enough doubt about his worth the season after next to make it not worth its while to extend his deal. In turn, that meant it was better to offload him now rather than lose him on a free transfer next summer.
“Emotionally, our respect for Bastian will always be enormous, but rationally, it’s the case that he’s been injured often recently and therefore couldn’t be a calculable factor in the last two years,” as Bayern’s sporting director Mattias Sammer put it.
Schweinsteiger remains hugely popular in Munich, and there’s little doubt his name will continue to be sung by Bayern fans. Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has all but promised him a job when his playing career is over. At some point next season, he will probably be pictured in Schumann’s Bar in Munich, drinking a beer after a Bayern game.
He was born just outside the city and his heart remains there. He wanted to stay and lead the quest for a record fourth straight Bundesliga title. But United offered a three-year deal worth more than anything Bayern was prepared to consider. Pep Guardiola had never made him such a central figure as Louis van Gaal and Jupp Heyckes had, and, pretty evidently, suggested to the Bayern hierarchy that he could live without Schweinsteiger. It was, certainly compared to Casillas's events at Real Madrid, all fairly amicable.
Guardiola has a multitude of other options at the back of midfield: Philipp Lahm, Xabi Alonso, Javi Martinez, Tiago Alcantara, even David Alaba if need be.
Only four times last season did he use Schweinsteiger as an out-and-out holding player, the position to which he was converted by van Gaal (although Jogi Low first used him there for Germany against Wales in 2007).
What’s intriguing now is how van Gaal intends to use Schweinsteiger. Initially the widespread belief was that he had been bought as cover or a replacement for Michael Carrick, who is three years older. Carrick was a vital cog when United played well last season, but he was restricted by injury to 16 starts. But with Morgan Schneiderlin also joining this week, that gives United three options at the back of midfield (plus Daley Blind, who looks like he should be able to operate as an anchor but never really convinced doing so last season).
It may be that van Gaal simply wants a large enough squad that United never suffers the sort of injury-induced shortages it endured last season, or it may be that he sees a time when he may play two holders, with Schweinsteiger driving forward from deep. Or perhaps he envisions Carrick’s future as a central defender.
Signing Schweinstieger has added an experienced leader and winner, a tough, fit player who passes the ball superbly and who has worked well with van Gaal in the past. The only doubt is whether, post-30, post-ankle injury, he can adapt to the Premier League. For a fee of around £14.5 million, though, it’s a gamble worth taking, even if Bayern’s reasons for selling are understandable. This looks like one of those rare deals from which everybody stands to benefit.