Michael Carrick is the quintessential ball playing midfielder, a player who on his day provides creativity, defensive nous and finesse in equal measure. But why does he get such bad press and further, why is he currently enemy no. 1 with Manchester United fans given the fantastic service he has given the club since his arrival in 2006? It is his name you hear on most supporters’ lips in the last 12 months more than any other when things aren’t going to plan for the team. But away from the emotional and tribal element of the beautiful game for a moment, let us examine whether, after a slightly troubled season (playing with an Achilles injury for large parts) last time around, whether the player can replicate his 2006-09 form once again and become a vital cog in what will ultimately be Ferguson’s last masterplan.
Carrick’s nimble passing has been pivotal to Man United’s free flowing attacking football, allowing a smooth transition from back to front with quick initiation passes, equally adept over short or long distances. Indeed, it could be argued that his contribution to the central midfield composition and the team as a whole was crucial to ending the “transition” spell, in which Arsenal and Chelsea took the Premiership title; A period in at United where the midfield – since the departure of the much unloved Seba Veron – would often comprise of the likes of Smith, Djemba-Djemba, Kleberson, O’ Shea, an under-developed Fletcher, and even Rio Ferdinand! Playing the majority of the time alongside Paul Scholes, the duo would often operate on a different planet than the rest of the field; Carrick’s role was integral to the smooth, intricate midfield evolution at United and was hugely influential in the securing of the three consecutive Premiership titles. In short, Michael’s game allowed those with attacking flair to function at their optimum, and the team to exploit the subsequent dynamic fluency.
Less static and with a greater passing range than say a Makelele or a Mascherano Carrick quietly imposes himself in the centre of the field with poise and grace, using both feet and supreme positional awareness – yet seemingly does not receive such comparable lavish praise as the aforementioned. Perhaps it is this very uncertainty about his role that the negativity stems; As an excellent passer much in the same mold as Andrea Pirlo for AC Milan, there is perhaps a misconception that his qualities are suited further up the pitch, an attacking ‘8’ for example. However, despite occasional forays further up the field, Ferguson very much sees his role as a midfield ‘6’ who is able to function alongside or compliment a regular ‘8’ – A player who can intercept and press the space superbly, either just in behind the all-action box-box Darren Fletcher, or the more measured influence of Paul Scholes. The team “orchestrator” then, and just maybe, somebody who combines the qualities of both Pirlo and Mascherano in a role of his own, breaking up play and distributing efficiently.
Xavi, one such specialised centre midfielder and conductor of proceedings (and who clearly won the psychological battle prior to the CL Final 2009 by saying so) agrees when he stated: “Carrick gives United balance and can play defensively too. He passes well, has a good shot and is a complete player.” Xavi Hails Carrick
It is hard to select a player with such a unique combination of midfield attributes; Of course you would have to throw the names of Alonso, Schweinsteiger and Busquets into the hat; the likes of Toure (Barcelona version), Mascherano, Perez and Melo also have elements of Carrick’s game – but are any of them a true replica?
4-4-2 v 4-5-1
Ferguson’s midfield options are more plush than the media would have us believe, with a variety of combinations available to him; Fletcher is fast becoming the complete box-midfielder in my opinion and is the first name on the teamsheet. Scholes is reliving the 90’s; Anderson’s talent is bursting to get out and Gibson is on the fringes – and that’s not to mention the fantastic prospects of Eikrem and Morrison! – but when fit and on form Carrick is vital to the team’s shape and his contrasting roles in a 4-5-1 or a 4-4-2 formation makes for interesting reading.
Versus Bursaspor Carrick completed a very impressive 91/99 passes (despite poor opposition) and played slightly more advanced than in his role versus Spurs a couple of days earlier. It was he who assisted neatly for the opening goal scored by Fletcher (see below chalkboard), and generally this combination (Carrick-Fletcher-Scholes) has worked well. In such a 4-5-1 (in a “destroyer-passer-creator system”), Carrick is thus generally used at the base of the triumvirate in order to capitalise on his superior defensive capabilities. Zonal Marking depicts this system, and the Ferguson team between 2006-09, as the third greatest team of the decade, which hugely compliments the work of Carrick, at least in part. (Teams of the Decade #3: Manchester United 2006-09).
Carrick vs Bursaspor: Passes (91/99 successful) (click to enlarge)
Credit: Total Football Application
Carrick can also be utilised at the head of the triangle however depending on the occasion; Arsenal away at the Emirates last season for example, and versus Internazionale in the San Siro the season before are good examples of his effectiveness in this sense, but there is a sense that there is a reduction in the overall productivity of the midfield when this occurs.
It must be acknowledged however that Ferguson has a distinct preference for 4-4-2 this season, especially on the domestic front where Berbatov is used to great effect in a creative role behind Rooney (or the effervescent Hernandez at present). Crucial to the system then is the positional maturity of the defensive central midfielder and this is where Carrick’s ability to intercept the ball (not tackle) by reading the game superbly and releasing the ball where appropriate, is key. See his interceptions chalkboard versus Tottenham here as an example (correlated interestingly to an area of the pitch where a certain “Bale” was plying his trade):
Carrick: 62 successful passes vs. Spurs (click to enlarge)
Credit: Guardian Chalkboards
A pertinent and practical example of this tactical instruction is well explained here in another fantastic piece by Zonal Marking (http://www.zonalmarking.net/2010/07/30/central-midfield-role/) on the role of the modern central midfielder:
“Therefore, intercepting is the new tackling. It’s not as spectacular, not as obvious, it won’t get the supporters on their feet (nowhere traditionally cheers a crunching tackle as much as English football terraces), but it’s just as useful. You’re immediately in possession, whereas after a tackle, the ball can run away to an opponent. And there’s more chance of launching a quick counter-attack, and transforming defense into attack swiftly.”
The ability to “dominate”
Another criticism is that he does not dominate games (and score) as much as he “should”. Again, we have to ask if there is any legitimacy to the claim? Carrick is not only tasked with keeping the defensive shape for large periods of the game (see Carlos Queiroz influence) but more, the greater efficiency is certainly in playing the ball out wide with pace or looking for the quick pass into the forward’s feet/path rather than the adoption of the Darron Gibson model of shooting on sight! (Wayne Rooney has currently had over 350 shots since his last long-range success in the league versus Newcastle in 2007!). How does one define “dominate” then? Pressing the space ahead of the opposing forward players requires concentration as well as an understanding of the game pattern; therefore protecting the back four is a form of domination itself.
“But as a‘6’ he doesn’t tackle, have the energy or win-at-all costs attitude of Roy Keane” comes the response. Not only can there never be the comparison to the United legend and great central midfield enforcer of his day, but the evolution of the destroyer-creator model has meant that this argument no longer holds water. Further, an important point to make at this juncture is that Michael’s quiet demeanour does not necessarily reflect negatively or his strength of character and will to win.
Giving him much needed game time versus Wolves and Bursaspor sandwiching the game v Spurs at Old Trafford Fergie’s ploy has had the effect of galvanizing the midfielder, eliciting a much needed confidence boost to a player who is important to United’s success in the league and in Europe. His absence has coincided with some dreadful United defensive displays and collective concentration lapses, and a return to form would be a huge bonus and at an opportune time as we enter the busy Winter schedule seeking to remain unbeaten on all fronts. Carrick offers a special blend of defending and attacking capabilities and is able to function with equal effectiveness in a number of formations. Backed by the fans and free from injury, Carrick should easily be able to step up to the plate and deliver on the big stage once again – and at the prime age of just 29 years, he could yet lift another premiership title (or three) in the coming years.
By Nik Storey. Follow Nik on Twitter.
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