You never know quite what to expect from a new signing and, while Anthony Martial has been hogging the limelight, endearing himself to Manchester United fans with his rampant form and blowing our expectations of him clean out of the water, it is another of the summer acquisitions with whom many of us have already fallen head-over-heels in love.
We had to pinch ourselves when he first came off the bench to face Tottenham Hotspur on the season’s opening day, and we have continued to pinch ourselves ever since. It’s hard to say whether we will ever get used to the fact that Bastian Schweinsteiger is a Manchester United player.
It always felt like Schweinsteiger would end his career at Bayern Munich. Indeed, the player himself may have felt it was his destiny to do so but, having seen his involvement for the Bavarian giants diminishing under Pep Guardiola, and having been told that that trend was set to continue, he has thrown himself into this fresh challenge with the professionalism and enthusiasm that has characterised his glittering career. In doing so, he is bringing untold joy to United’s fans.
There were those who felt that Schweinsteiger was a spent force, discarded by Bayern, ready to take what he could get and run down the clock in the autumn of his career. Those people now appear to have been well wide of the mark. He looks rejuvenated, drinking in this new challenge like an elixir and slowly but surely stitching himself into the very fabric of the club. This is a player who has already won it all but whose hunger for success remains un-sated.
It is impossible to underplay just how much United needed a player like Schweinsteiger – maybe how much we simply needed Schweinsteiger himself. Not only is he a footballer of exquisite brilliance, able to dictate the tempo of a game like a seasoned conductor standing before an orchestra, always in space, brutally efficient, playing on a different octave to almost everyone around him thanks to his magnificent footballing intelligence, he is also a born leader. To watch him directing those around him is awe-inspiring and sends a thrill of wonder down the spine. To see him with his arm around the shoulders of the younger players, offering words of wisdom or simply sharing a joke, is deeply comforting. You get the sense that, with him around, things will work out in the end.
Sir Alex Ferguson recently caused a stir when he declared that he only ever worked with four world-class players during his time as United manager. His omission of Roy Keane, in particular, incensed many fans who saw it as a sour slight on one of the game’s great midfielders. Schweinsteiger may just be the closest United have come, all these years later, to finally replacing Keane, and Ferguson must allow himself the occasional moment of regret that he never got to work with the German.
There are certainly similarities with Keane but (whisper it quietly) there are also similarities with another of Ferguson’s greatest signings – the catalyst of Ferguson’s success, the spark that ignited United’s explosion of glory back in the nineties: Eric Cantona.
Cantona inspired those around him, players and fans alike. He had an aura that cannot be honed on the training-ground or taught in a classroom. It is the kind of innate presence that a person is born with and that grows more luminous with the passing years. Such an aura is possessed by very few, but is immediately recognised by all who see it. Bastian Schweinsteiger has such an aura.
Martial’s incredible start at the club has certainly played a huge part in the team’s recent run of results, yet it also coincides with Schweinsteiger’s improved fitness and his obviously growing influence both on and off the pitch. That influence will continue to bloom, sowing seeds of self-belief in the hearts of his teammates.
Whether Schweinsteiger, like Cantona, can be the catalyst for another period of success at United remains to be seen. What is already abundantly clear is that, if any one player can inspire such a thing, he is probably that player. It feels like the beginning of a beautiful relationship, and United fans are already deeply in love.