There was a lot of excitement when Juan Sebastian Veron arrived in England in 2001 to play for Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. The Argentine had been one of the finest players in Italy for several years, at a time when Serie A was still considered to be on a par with, if not superior to, the English and Spanish top-flights.
He was pure class, a central midfielder gifted with vision, power and drive, one of the most thrilling players around. Ferguson saw him as a man who could provide the touch of imagination United needed to compete in Europe and, on the domestic front, with Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, a team that brimmed with continental flair. Back then – how times change – Wenger and Arsenal were trendsetters; the pioneers that truly brought a European style of play to England. Veron was to be Ferguson’s answer to that.
Most saw it as a shrewd move for a footballer of proven ability. Veron was a big name – perhaps the most high-profile established star United had brought in from abroad at that point in Ferguson’s reign. The £23.4m transfer fee United paid to Lazio – who had just won Serie A for the first time in decades – broke the English record, and expectations were understandably high.
In part due to a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Real Madrid in 1999-00, Ferguson deduced that he needed to shift his side away from their traditional reliance on the 4-4-2 formation. Real had run rings around United’s midfield with an attacking 4-3-3, and Veron was hired to serve as the extra man in the middle. Ferguson was adjusting to meet the requirements of a new era.
The experiment started well, with Veron showing some early form and winning the league’s Player of the Month award in September 2001. But that form quickly tailed off into the winter, with Veron complaining about a poor training regime. In the new year, he picked up an injury that affected him further.
The media pressure on Veron began to build, with Ferguson infamously lashing out at journalists after United were eliminated from the Champions League. “He’s a f*cking great player. Youse are all f*cking idiots,” were Fergie’s much-repeated words.
Unfortunately for United, they finished third in the league, their lowest placing since 1991 (it can’t have helped that Arsenal won the division undefeated in 2001-02). They’d struggled to adapt to the change of formation, with Paul Scholes later remarking that he’d hated playing in the number 10 role, having been required to operate further up the field with Veron lying deeper.
The following season, Veron did okay, impressing at the heart of United’s midfield. In March another injury came and, unluckily for the man they called La Brujita, United’s performances improved noticeably. Ferguson returned to 4-4-2 and the Red Devils closed an eight-point gap on Arsenal to win back the Premier League.
Over at Stamford Bridge, meanwhile, Roman Abramovich had brought his millions to Chelsea. With Veron marginalised in Manchester, it was a perfect time for Abramovich to swoop, and he duly stumped up the £15m required to prise the Argentine from United’s grasp. In truth, they were probably delighted to get it.
All things considered, Veron had flopped at Old Trafford.
It wasn’t all his fault, with several extenuating circumstances affecting his time there. But there’s little denying his, well, floppiness. Quite frankly, it just hadn’t worked out: despite the player’s obvious gifts, he simply didn’t fit in at United.
Sadly for Veron, it only got worse at Chelsea. He spent four years in London, two of them on loan, making a grand total of seven appearances in that period. He’s since become a fixture in “Worst Ever Premier League Transfers” lists, which on the whole is just about justified given the fees paid and the expectations laid upon him, but is also slightly unfair on one of the most exciting players of his generation.