As David Moyes continues his search for a midfielder, he knows he has to find someone who will not only complement Michael Carrick but will also be able to step into his shoes in the event of an injury to the Geordie.
The fact that Michael Carrick is now central to Manchester United’s plans shows how far he has come since the summer of 2011 when Xavi, Iniesta & Co. ran rings around the United midfield. If that match was the nadir of Carrick’s stay in Manchester then the following season was not a lot better as the media and the fans had found a suitable scapegoat in Carrick whenever United were over run in midfield. That season also saw the arrival of Juan Mata to Chelsea and along with David Silva and Yaya Toure he was being heralded as the new kind of midfielder needed to sustain a title challenge. The template for a modern midfielder was laid out and it was clear – either play in the hole behind the strikers or as a component of a 3 man attack or have the physicality to impose yourself on the opposition midfield. Now Carrick was never that kind of a player and it would have been foolhardy to expect him to change at the age of 30.
During the course of the 2011-12 season whenever United came up short the midfield was blamed and it was thought that while Carrick was an efficient understudy to Paul Scholes he could never take charge of the midfield in the absence of Scholes. Carrick himself admitted that he had doubts regarding his ability to mix it with the best following the hammering at the hands of Barcelona and those doubts carried through the following season. United suffered as a result, as they were eliminated from the Champions League at the group stage and they were subsequently outclassed by Atletico Madrid in the Europa League. They only managed to take the Premier League title race to the last day because of Rooney’s ability and Manchester City’s profligacy.
Therefore, when Sir Alex could not get Wesley Sneijder to come to Old Trafford in the summer of 2012 it was felt that United would once again come up short in the really big matches when the midfield is even more important. But the Scot must have seen something in Carrick during that summer because as soon as August came around the former Tottenham man put on top level performances every weekend. If Carrick was labelled as a safe and boring player during the previous seasons, he began making those forward passes more often and with near-unfailing accuracy.
Over the last three seasons Carrick had managed to maintain a passing accuracy of 90% but while he passed forward only 30% of the time in 2009-10 & 2010-11 he improved the figure to 37% last season. Carrick also mixed up his game a lot more last season and was constantly looking to release Rooney and Van Persie. He also played more minutes barring Evra and Van Persie in United’s title challenge last season and the way he controlled the games reminded one of Andrea Pirlo. Like the Italian maestro, Carrick was more visible when he acted as the link between the defence and the attack.
There is a school of thought in Europe that the English do not take to players like Carrick as they do not seem to try enough. A player like Scott Parker has always been more appreciated than a cultured keep ball-pass ball kind of a player so common in the Spanish, Dutch & Italian leagues. Xabi Alonso has always maintained that if England is to take the next step then players like Carrick will have to be given permission to do their stuff. International football and European football in particular is dominated by sides who have good possession of the ball and with Carrick in the side both United and England stand a better chance of doing that.
Every analysis of Carrick should keep in mind that he plays for a team which deploys two wingers and two forwards. As a result of this Carrick is often left with only one other midfielder to act as a partner or cover. This is in stark contrast to some of the top European clubs who have 3 midfielders in the centre of the park. Consequently, whenever United play any of these sides they are invariably short staffed in midfield and hence there is greater pressure on Carrick to deliver. In addition to this the Englishman has not been helped by the fact that United do not have a stable partnership in the middle with Kagawa, Jones, Anderson, Fletcher, Rooney, Giggs, et al. partnering him at various stages of last season. Despite all these problems Carrick performed admirably last season and finally emerged from the shadow of Scholes.
At 32 years of age, Michael Carrick is in the middle of a purple patch and how long he can continue his superlative form will not only shape the destiny of United this season but also that of England as they head into a World Cup.
– Rishi Jain