In the dying minutes of Manchester United’s game with Watford at the weekend and with the score tied at one-all, Bastian Schweinsteiger stole all the points at Vicarage Road with a sharp angled finish. In due course, The FA may well decide that Troy Deeney got the decisive touch on the ball and take the German’s first goal in English football away from – but no matter, it was definitively his best moment to-date in a United shirt.
Louis Van Gaal’s team hadn’t performed particularly well. A bright, purposeful start to the game faded away as the match developed and when Troy Deeney thumped home an eighty-sixth minute penalty, the hosts looked on course for the point that their performance merited. But there was Schweinsteiger at the death, showing up like Gary Oldman at the end of Leon to cut Heurelho Gomes’ parry back in off the lunging Deeney.
Had that happened under Sir Alex Ferguson, it would have been lauded as the symptom of an imminent title-charge and as the hallmark of potential champions. What Van Gaal’s team really are, we don’t yet know – they’re effective without being fun to watch and successful without being particularly clinical. They lack Manchester City’s squad-depth and are short on the blue-chip talent that Arsenal can boast and that will likely put a ceiling on their progress this year.
But if Saturday’s win wasn’t indicative of anything significant, it was still descriptive of Schweinsteiger himself.
When he agreed to join Manchester United in the Summer, the move had a “victory lap” feel to. The midfielder’s advancing years and creaking body had cost him his relevance at Bayern Munich and it was tempting to view the move to Old Trafford as a pre-retirement stop-over. During their mini-decline, United not only lost the ability to attract truly elite players, but also became known in the market as a club who would pay above and beyond for names and reputations. They were the leverage team: the name which was tactically dropped during contract renegotiations to scare out a more favourable offer.
So when a thirty-one year-old Bastian Schweinsteiger walked through the door, having managed just fifteen Bundesliga starts in 2014/15, the cynicism which greeted him was entirely understandable.
But the German is all-in at Old Trafford and never was that more evident than during the aftermath of his goal on Saturday. Last-minute winners always excite players, irrespective of the circumstance in which they’re scored, but Schweinsteiger’s half-pitch gallop and clenched-fist celebration at full-time was deeply infectious. It meant something to him; it’s plainly evident that his thirst for success still needs quenching.
Beyond their initial novelty, these sorts of transfers have a tendency to fall flat. Once a set of supporters adapt to the privilege of seeing a fading star in their team’s colours, they start to spot the imperfections. When a player has won everything there is to win at club level – in addition to the World Cup – his motivation for achieving more in the game typically fades. There are exceptions, Esteban Cambiasso’s performances for Leicester City being among them, but that generally holds true.
With Schweinsteiger there’s no evidence of that. He is past his physical prime and his athletic abilities aren’t what they once were, but his enthusiasm for the game and commitment to it remains intact. How admirable that is. At a time when players’ love for the sport has been usurped by a colder, more business-like approach, what a welcome change of pace to see a serial winner so emotionally engaged during his twilight years.
Manchester United themselves are partly responsible for that, because it’s unquestionably a privilege to play for a club of that size, but it would have been entirely understandable had Schweinsteiger’s time in England amounted to little more than a post-Allianz Arena sulk. He had been at the same club since the age of fourteen and after seventeen highly successful years he had, for all intents and purposes, become obsolete.
That’s a weighty blow for an ego to absorb and one which usually leaves at least a hint of bruising. But that departure – and all the adjustments entailed – doesn’t seem to have left a mark on him.
He’ll be of limited use over the duration of his United contract and he is very much a temporary component in a squad which is still being remodelled, but what a fantastic example he’s setting. For players like Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin, what a privilege it must be to play alongside someone who has done so much in his career, and for those who are younger – Andreas Perreira, Jesse Lingard, Antony Martial and the rest – how valuable to be exposed to such an exemplary level of professionalism at such a young age.
This is someone who has held the World Cup, the Champions League trophy, eight Bundesliga titles and who has 114 caps for Germany and yet who is also still enthused enough about his football to dance down the touchline at Watford on a freezing day in November.
What a pleasure to watch him, even now.