Michael Carrick: Midfield Genius


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.

To date…

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.

Unique role?

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).

Michael Carrick: Midfield Genius

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):

Michael Carrick: Midfield Genius

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.

In Summary

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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  1. Avatar
    Danny Salford Red on

    You see for me though thats just the thing. He does not impose himself on games as claimed earlier. He simply doesnt and has never in his life taken a game by the scruff of the neck. his passes are mostly 5 yarders sideways and he isnt a particularly good tackler.

  2. Avatar

    He’s not good enough. He was only good enough for about 1 season. The rest of the time he’s not good enough for us.
    We’ve been lacking a Keane since……Keane. Simple as that

  3. Avatar

    Not even gonna bother reading this….

    Your clearly deluded…

    Michael Carrick wouldnt even get back in Tottenhams line up these days…. Never mind United!

    He belongs to someone like West Ham….

    Carrick is DREADFUL!

  4. Avatar

    I applaud you my friend for an extremely well-written article. I agree with most of what you said. Criticising Carrick’s form I understand, but those criticising his class are rediculous. I never doubted his ability, he’s a fine midfielder for us. I’m not saying he’s on top of his game, but let’s hope he gets there soon. Still, a fine midfielder and adds a good deal to our midfield.

  5. Avatar


    Explain how and why you think this??

    He doesnt assist, he doesnt score, he cant tackle, he cant head, he is slow… He would make a far better rugby player as the guy only seems to know how to pass the ball BACKWARDS!

    Anyone disagree??

  6. Avatar
    Salford Reds MUFC on

    Oh dear cliche alert!

    Slightly bizarre statement that Carrick is enemy number 1 with United fans personally I hate City, Liverpool a lot more and if you are referring to players then the overrated princesses at Arsenal inspire a lot more hatred in me.

    If there is any resentment for Carrick it is surely because of the fact he went missing in the final (not the only one to be fair) against Barca and his shockingly bad positional play and defending against Bayern Munich last season – which cost us so much momentum before half time.

    “quietly imposes himself in the centre of the field” is a contradiction in terms – perhaps you should read Roy Keane’s autobiography – that gives a fascinating insight to the role of a midfielder and the required mindset.

    This article then gets even more bizarre – I think most United fans love Fletcher – hard working, tough in the tackle, gets forward, he indeed gets a lot more out of his talent than Carrick, despite Carrick having more ‘natural talent’ However Fletcher is not and will never be (as much as I love him) the complete box to box midfielder – I don’t think the author was watching United much when Robson or Keane were at their peak.

    “It is hard to select a player with such a unique combination of midfield attributes” I do actually like Carrick but oh dear, I can only assume the author is related to Carrick.

    It is true that Carrick had a superb first season for however since then he has stagnated and against the very best in Europe his performances have been rather disappointing.

    Sorry but I don’t think this analysis of Carrick will tally with most United fans experiences of watching him. You need to ease up on the tactics stuff, it never ceases to amaze me how people always go on about tactics and formations, people forget the game is played by human beings, undoubtly at the highest level the games is played between the ears – just look at how Fletcher gets much more out of his talent than Carrick, that is much more to do with mindset than bloody Guardian Chalkboards.

  7. Avatar

    Completely disagree w/ title but a well written article that reminds me of what Carrick was capable of back in the day w/ a strong midfield. BUT the main problem is his consistency & whether or not he is even capable of performing 2 expectations again. I disagree that this is the only season he’s underperformed. He’s been heading down hill 4 past 3 seasons IMHO & I don’t think injury has jack 2 do w/ it. I sincerely think he isn’t MUFC material & saying that doesn’t erase what he’s done 4 MUFC, it just means he served some purpose but not enough 2 warrant XI status which is what we need in midfield now. We have enough of benchers & he’s no spring chicken or some1 like Ando & Eikrem who have youth & potential that could shape MUFC future 4 the better. Carrick is SO lackluster, shows no spirit & 1 half decent performance will not make me forget all the bad ones especially when he was the elder in midfield & lacked the skill/resolve 2 command. I agree w/ Paddy K that he couldn’t make SoftSpurs XI so you think he deserves 2 be @ MUFC? Carrick is average not even in top 10 of EPL midfielders. We are not being harsh 2 expect more of him especially since we’ve given him chances no other club would. I hope SAF sells or trades him 4 a naturally skilled AM who doesn’t need better players around him 2 perform 2 expectations. We need 2 get back 2 showing loyalty 2 the CLUB 1st & foremost & not the players. PLEASE stop w/ this sentimental bull.

  8. Avatar

    Thanks for all the comments, much appreciated.

    A lot of the points many of you address are discussed in the article, so therefore I disagree with the main contention that he is lacklustre and unable to exert his influence on the game.

    Whilst I agree that he hasnt been fantastic in last 12-18 months, a lot of his mixed performances have been the result of a combination of injury and Ferguson’s attempt to blood new talent. However what is clear to me is the effect an assured Carrick performance has on the team; Rome aside – where everybody including the likes of Vidic and Ronaldo were dreadful – United’s big performances have come when MC is on form: Arsenal away last two, Milan and Inter away, Chelsea away last season, Roma and others at home etc.

    The last 3 performances have seen him approach a level we would expect of him and it is no surprise either to see a lot of the defensive frailties we have suffered of late, ease up when he is in the side. He needs to improve his consistency no doubt, but with this in mind, wouldnt it be great for him to have the vocal support of his own fans in order to improve likelihood of this?

    Oh, and Fergie doesn’t do “sentimentality” …

  9. Avatar
    One Winged Angel on

    Brilliant article!! About time Carrick got some recognition. It’s also worth noting that certain World Cup winning Spanish midfielders rate him so highly (see Alonso praise, and how Busquets has BLATANTLY watched him play).

  10. Avatar

    Fergie not sentimental? Explain why Gary Neville is still hanging around even though he’s clearly no longer Premiership material let alone United quality.

  11. Avatar

    I feel sorry for the author of this article. In a non-Premiership scenario, the accuracy of this article would have been easily applauded. What needs to be done is an educational campaign for English Premiership fanatics on how the game has long shifted from the basic four four two system and “destroyer-playmaker” midfield. Then authors like these would be easily appreciated.

  12. Avatar

    Will someone please tell me this was all written in jest?

    How can anyone put the name Michael Carrick in a sentence with the term “midfield genius” in it? Good lord… I think the universe is about to implode.

  13. Avatar

    Clearly the author is a total bender and wants to have Carrick’s babies. No sane person could have wrote this article. If he’s saying this about Michael Carrick maybe I should write one about our old Rangers, now Birmingham legend Barry Ferguson but fortunately I know he’s not worth the time and I’m not gay.

  14. Avatar

    I think Carrick could still have something to offer for us, if he got his head straight, which he hasn’t for a while. On his day, when he is performing well (as we have seen before), he is a quality midfielder, a good link between the defense and attack. it’s just a case of whether he is willing (or able) to put the effort in anymore to get the most out of his game in a united shirt. I’m not so sure he is anymore. Would like to think so, but i don’t.
    I think we would be better off playing Anderson and nurturing his talents. He has put in some good performances this season, but really needs a solid run in the team, to get chance to develop and show us what he’s got. i think Anderson is the type of player that would thrive from fan praise and press praise etc… (Look how much Ronaldo improved when people started to rave about his undeniable young talent.) He needs a run in the side.

  15. Avatar

    Right, I’ve had enough time to calm down and look a little more objectively at the Liverpool ‘performance’ by United, and I’ll admit, it was more Fergie’s fault than Carrick’s. Here’s why.

    Liverpool’s midfield consisted of Mereiles, Lucas (who is good, whatever the man in the pub might say), Gerrard and Maxi Rodrigues. All have a good work rate and Mereiles especially of late like to make runs to support the forwards. Add Kuyt (the archetypal hard working forward) and Suarez (everywhere) and that’s a lot of work for the defence/midfield to cope with.

    So you need someone like Fletcher or Anderson in there to do a lot of running. Don’t know why Fletcher didn’t start, while Anderson was injured. This meant our midfield was: Giggs (played OK but old), Scholes (played so bad I had to check it was actually him at times, and old), Carrick (good at his continental, interception reliant style and a good passer, but not exactly a bundle of energy) and Nani (a winger). Also Berbatov was playing, and although it’s harsh to call him lazy, he’s not exactly Kuyt, is he? And Rooney’s still about 70% so doesn’t do much to help the midfield.

    The lack of a leader at CB didn’t help, perhaps Vidic or Rio could have got hold of Carrick or Scholes and told them they needed a hand. Can’t really blame Smalling, a youngster, so Brown’s gotta be the culpable one here.

    Basically what I’m saying is our midfield was completely dominated by Liverpool’s, which much have been an average age of ab out 5 years younger. It showed. Fergie ALWAYS plays Fletcher in important games and I can’t believe he left him out for tactical reasons, it must have been a niggle. But to play a four man midfield of which three aren’t very mobile and the other is an attacking winger is just crazy. If Fletcher can’t play, then don’t play 4-4-2, drop a striker and play the extra midfielder. Gibson’s come in for a lot of stick as he’s bee poor lately so might have been a risk, so play Rooney wide left, where he’s also mean Johnson would be pegged back.

    To return to my original point about Carrick, YES I will admit he wasn’t the worst player (Scholes probably was) but his faults were highlighted in this game. His style is OK and sometimes works very effectively, but only when coupled with a dogsbody type player – Fletcher, Anderson, perhaps even Park playing wide would help. He’s not a complete player by any means (at over 6 foot he’s also sometimes disappointing in the air and less physical than would be expected), whatever Xavi might say. In fact he’d probably be more suited to the Spanish game, or the Italian one. But NOT a fast-paced derby like this.

  16. Avatar
    Ogesa frm Tanzania on

    Carrick is a real maestRo for United midfield,
    The arguments abt Carrick is jus for those WHO are very unfortunate to understand football!
    We had ronaldo-rooney-scholes-giggs bt hardly achieved bt when Carrick came in 2006 everything changed and here we are United!

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