This season it seems that Michael Carrick has been blamed for everything. Rising house prices, the war in Iraq, the conflict in Libya; all Carrick’s fault. Joking apart though Carrick has taken a lot of flak in the past six months, some deserved but a lot unmerited. What then will it take for Carrick to return to a page in the supporters’ collective good book and to find consistently effective form in the heart of United’s midfield?
Never one to set the pulses racing, Carrick does a job and in his first seasons at United, did it very well. However, the common consensus amongst United fans is that he has not been the same since being taken apart by Messrs Andreas Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez in the 2009 Champions League Final. That trauma, along with a change in role in the Reds’ midfield due to the extended absence of Owen Hargreaves, seems to have hampered Carrick’s progress. This was particularly true last season as his confidence seemed sapped and he was left out in favour of Darron Gibson in many of the crucial games at the end of the campaign.
However, Carrick has shown a marked improvement in recent weeks. Maybe the Geordie hasn’t hit the heights of his first couple of seasons in Red but the Carrick of old does seem to be emerging, particularly against Chelsea last Wednesday. At Stamford Bridge last week Carrick was crucial in United’s first win in west London since 2002, playing a huge part in Wayne Rooney’s winning goal and, along with the effervescent Ryan Giggs, effectively marshalling Chelsea’s imposing midfield duo of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien.The midfielder’s passing was also impressive. Already considered one of his strong points, Carrick completed 83 per cent of all of his passes, which is a praise-worthy stat at such a tough venue. The 30-year-old also covered nearly ten kilometres – an extremely good shift only bettered by his central midfield partner Giggs – that puts paid to claims that Carrick is lazy.
Carrick is not a destructive midfielder in the ilk of Hargreaves or Darren Fletcher though, nor is he an out and out attacking midfielder like Anderson or Paul Scholes in his pomp. However, Carrick is exceptional at reading the game. In this season’s Champions League the midfielder has made a total of 35 interceptions, which betters two other players who are of similar ilk – Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel, who has 13, and Real Madrid’s Xavi Alonso, who has 25.
The positional change referred to earlier has involved Carrick being deployed in a deeper role to screen the back four; a position in which Hargreaves excelled in during his first season at Old Trafford. Although billed as a defensive midfielder by many, Carrick seems to excel further up the pitch as a playmaker.
Against Rangers (Diagram 1) Carrick started alongside Paul Scholes in a midfield that gave the Geordie licence to move further forward and influence United’s attacking play. By contrast against Marseille (Diagram 2), starting in a midfield three many of his forward passes were less apparent and many were unsuccessful. In the role Carrick played against Marseille he was expected to ‘get stuck in’ and play the Roy Keane tough-tackling midfield role. In fact, he saw less of the ball thus giving him less influence in United’s attack, although he still completed 43 of an attempted 52 passes.
Tackling is not Carrick’s strong point Hhe’s got a tackle in him yes but many feel he is unwilling to ‘get stuck in’. This could be the case and if Carrick is unsure of his own ability in that area then this will be of detriment to his play. Diagram 3 could add credence to this view.
Another criticism that is often made of Carrick is his in ability to pass forward. However, when Carrick plays in a more forward position – in the centre of the park – he seems to be more willing and confident in his ability to influence the Reds. This can be seen below in Carrick’s passing against Chelsea, compared to that against Marseille (Diagram 4). Although Carrick made more passes against Marseille he had a better success rate against Chelsea, furthermore United had to contain Chelsea for a lot longer than they did Marseille and had possession of the ball more sporadically. Carrick’s use of the ball seems to be more effective when playing in an advanced role.
Interestingly, Sir Alex Ferguson seems to be taking note as Carrick has not played in a midfield three since the game at Stade Velodrome. Carrick has featured in eight of the nine games since the first leg of the last 16 tie and in each he has featured alongside only one midfielder as opposed to two. Not only has Carrick improved but so has the team, Anfield aside.
When Carrick came on at the weekend for the last 15 minutes against Fulham he exuded a confidence that has been lacking at times over the past two seasons. The midfielder popped first time passes around with aplomb and looked very much like the Carrick of old.
Another reason for Carrick’s upsurge in recent form could be the return of Antonio Valencia, which has enabled United to operate in a 4-4-2 formation more often, reverting to the 1994 style of two out-and-out wingers in Valencia and Nani. But stats mean little to some of course. Many supporters have already made their minds up about Carrick and, despite some praise-worthy metrics, have turned their back on the England international.
What is not in doubt: Carrick has recently signed a new three-year deal. Whether you believe this is because of Ferguson’s faith in United’s number 16 – recent performances merit this – or because the Reds are cash strapped and have been forced to offer the 30-year-old a contract that few were expecting, is up to you.
However, Carrick is going to be here for the foreseeable whether fans like it or not. It is hard to believe that Ferguson has signed up a player who he does not believe has the credentials to be the main man in United’s midfield.
Perhaps its time for a clean slate: give Carrick a chance. The faith may well be rewarded.