It has been an underwhelming season at Manchester United. For the most part Louis van Gaal’s side has ground out points rather than won convincingly won. Over the season there was only one really bright period from the Tottenham Hotspur game to Manchester City at Old Trafford. Those games had one thing in common: Michael Carrick was present for all four.
Perhaps it is something of an overstatement to entirely credit Carrick for the excellent form over that period. All but one game in the four game run was at Old Trafford. While Anfield always presents a challenge, Liverpool threw away the fixture by playing with 10 men for 45 minutes following Steven Gerrard’s dismissal.
The period also saw Louis Van Gaal shift to a 4-3-3 formation – a system with which the Dutch manager has persisted ever since. Tactical stability must have played a huge part given that the season has brought almost a dozen different systems.
It may be harsh, but it is also true that Carrick is not the quality of player who can reasonably be expected to dramatically better a side. The Englishman is good, but few would pick him ahead of Andrea Pirlo, for example. It is hard to see a player of Carrick’s quality being responsible for United’s best patch of 2014/15 Premier League season.
Still, that is the conclusion reached even on careful examination. In United’s 4-3-3 system the four most advanced midfielders can be considered forwards along with the lone striker in the attacking phase of the game. The five, which this season has usually included Maroune Fellaini, has often lacked guile. Nor do Wayne Rooney or Ashley Young beat a man in the box to sneak in a goal.
Van Gaal’s side is slow so the Reds have frequently run into a roadblock once a position has been established in the opposition half. This is why United suffered poor results against Chelsea and Everton towards the end of the season, with both happy to soak up pressure then hit on the break, and good results against sides with attacking intent. Once deadlocked the only ‘easy’ option has been to recycle the ball to the number six then try another approach.
In this case Carrick is the best man in the United squad to be orchestrating the attack. There is little point in just handing the ball back to the front line and so the most ‘productive’ option is to engage the flanks – particularly the fullbacks lurking to burst forward – or aim for Fellaini, as below.
No player, bar perhaps Rooney, can hit crossfield balls as well as Carrick so it follows naturally that the side would perform better with the English midfielder in the side as he gives United an effective and proven option that works to the Reds’ strengths.
Does this mean that a new deep-lying playmaker will be bought during summer? Notwithstanding the fact that there are very few, if any, deep-lying playmakers available on the market, Memphis Depay significantly changes the equation.
Depay aggressively attacks the box, below, so a left-sided central midfielder could crowd out the Eredivise’s top scorer by moving into the box, in the manner Fellaini has done this season.
The Belgian midfielder is suspended for the first three games in any case, but someone of his ilk would significantly hamper the new signing’s game. It suggests that United’s left-sided midfielder next season might be a creative type sitting just outside the box or even deeper. This option opens up opportunities both for both existing players at Old Trafford and for recruitment.
Juan Mata has occasionally played in central midfield this season and this role suits the Spaniard greatly as it essentially is a role at ‘number 10’. Instead of the number six spraying the ball out wide, Mata or another player can work combinations into the box.
Another interesting prospect is playing Angel di Maria in that role. The Argentine has proven his creativity while he may also run at the opposition defence from deep. Di Maria is perhaps too trigger happy, but he has scored a few from outside the box as well as creating chances.
An extra creative midfielder is Van Gaal’s option B in itself so, in this scenario, there is no need for the number six to contribute as much as Carrick has in recycling the ball. In essence, Depay’s move to Old Trafford can solve the Carrick conundrum as well as addressing United’s need for a classy winger.
That said deploying a purely defensive number six seems as waste while such degree of specialisation will probably grate against Van Gaal’s total football sensibilities. Carrick will still have a role to play and a new number six should bring qualities other than hard tackling.
There is a reason why Ander Herrera has deputised for Carrick this season. Herrera does not offer a range of long passes, but he can shoot from distance. Indeed, number six is the ideal man to attempt from distance in this system as he has plenty of space to line up a shot. A defensive midfielder with a proven long shot may offer just as potent a backup option as Carrick.
Being a neat passer is, of course, a must in Van Gaal’s possession heavy United side, but the new man does not need to be a bona fide playmaker. This also means that Blind will have an easier time if called upon.
Carrick may have had a big hand in victories against Tottenham, Liverpool, Aston Villa and City, but there is little concern if no replacement is found. As long as other options are brought in, United will have a better shot at winning points off determined teams with Depay at the club – something that has troubled the Reds this season and must be solved if the club is to have a genuine attempt at the Premier League.