He scurries, that’s what he does. When the other, more direct, more finessed, more expensive options are exhausted, the boss pulls him off the bench and starts him on those shuttling runs across the opponents back line. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth he goes pulling and probing and waiting for the heartbeat of a moment where his marker is looking right when he should be looking left. The pass comes in, and suddenly the Scurrier is in a sliver of space. The ball is under his feet, a weird composition that more upright players would be unable to detangle – and then it happens. Somehow – with the laws of physics and biology and plain common sense otherwise occupied – the ball meanders away from the Scurrier at an impossible trajectory, implying that he must possess an invisible third leg that he uses for secret kicking. Everyone is flummoxed, but not the Scurrier – he is already wheeling away in celebration. The goal has already been scored, crossing the line is a mere formality.
Javier Hernández knows his exactly what his role in the Manchester United team is. He is perhaps the only member of that squad who does.
Sir Alex Ferguson has been described on many occasions as a team builder – someone whose greatest strength lies in his ability to recognise the shifting state of football and construct new squads designed to thrive in the prevailing environment. The current team however looks on first glance to be a baffling gumbo of an eleven, the disparate odds and ends of whatever was left after the Glazers raided the kitchen and left Ferguson to throw whatever he could into the pot and hope that with enough time and hot sauce, something palatable would result.
This is certainly the oddest squad that Ferguson has had seriously challenging for the title during his varied reign. If Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale side was described by the tactocracy as a broken team – two discrete units assigned to defence and attack with no overlap, linked only by Esteban Cambiasso occasionally (and often accidentally) nudging the ball forward – then Ferguson is currently presiding over a shattered team. The lack of cohesion and communication in United’s play is breathtaking – Ashley Young would appear to have no consistent link between his feet and brain, never mind his covering fullback. Every United game this season sees a new, seemingly random decision on personnel and formation, because no one other than Chicharito knows who he is anymore. Is Wayne Rooney a forward or a midfielder? Is Rafael a winger or a fullback? Is Paul Scholes a defensive screen or creative link? What in all the hells is Nani? Not even the goalkeepers know their place, as the De Gea/Lindegaard starter/substitute relationship gavottes on into the uncertain infinity.
And yet this team, this team, may well prove to be the best in the land.
How did this happen? Ferguson’s genius this year was to recognise that he did not have the resources to even begin plugging all the leaks springing up throughout the middle and back of his rickety squad, so rather than apportion small amounts of cash here and there on lesser players that might rise to the challenge of being a United player over time, he put all his eggs in one Dutch basket and dared the wicker to split. In one fell swoop, he gained a talismanic player that lifted the team and supporters’ spirits, completely disabled a potential title rival by neutering Arsenal entirely, and guaranteed at least an additional 20 goals to his side, no matter what formless chaos takes place behind him on the pitch.
You might suggest that Robin van Persie is a United player who certainly knows his role, and that’s he’s fulfilling it with every game-and-face-saving strike he lashes into the net to rescue another anodyne team performance, but that doesn’t tell the whole story, because Van Persie has no set on-field role beyond those goals. Is he there to be Rooney’s strike partner? No, because that would mean relying on a 4-4-2 and a central midfield pairing that, no matter which two players Ferguson plucks from his available pool, will be lacking in at least one vital central midfield quality. Is he then a lone striker? No, because that means farming Rooney out to the wing – where he’s less effective – or pushing him back into the number ten role, which makes Shinji Kagawa redundant or displaced.
Any attempt to accommodate Van Persie has the knock-on effect of destabilising the rest of United’s shoogly foundation, so his role is therefore to plug into the gaps of today’s randomly-generated formation wherever he can and simply be Robin van Persie. But to declare this would be tear down the pretence of United’s team, to destroy the fragile magic that has them fighting at the top of the table in a startling triumph of self-determination over ability. Ferguson recognised that the prevailing environment of the current Premier League is full of exciting, expensive teams who couldn’t keep a clean sheet in a vacuum-sealed laundrette. You don’t need a team in this league, you just need a star – but you also need everyone to believe that you still need a team, otherwise it descends into the egomania and unbalance of the worst Brazilian league sides. Getting his squad and his opponents to buy this illusion is a remarkable act of misdirection by Ferguson, and may be his ultimate mind-game.
As long as Ferguson can keep his plates spinning and his own players fooled, United may well be destined for the title. And on those rare, horrible occasions when the star isn’t firing? That’s when you reach for the man who knows exactly who he is – that’s when you send for the Scurrier. Everyone else is just guessing.
Nicol Hay watches a lot of sport and then writes about it. It's a compulsion, and he needs help desperately. His blogging can be found here, and you can follow him on Twitter here.