The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
There’s a lot to be said about Manchester United’s current plight. For all the so-called dominance on the pitch, results aren’t coming José Mourinho’s way. Increasingly the Europa League looks like United’s best route to Champions League football next season. In common with Thursday’s victory, United’s best results this season have come with Michael Carrick in the team. So how can Mourinho extract the most from his ageing midfielder?
Perhaps the Reds’ draw with West Ham United at Old Trafford shouldn’t be a huge surprise given Carrick’s absence. Whenever the Geordie starts the odds are that United will pull out a positive result. Carrick’s presence enables Mourinho’s team to operate in a 4-3-3 system, utilizing the midfielder’s vision, passing and football intelligence.
The balance Carrick offers both defensively and in attack cannot be underestimated. He’s the conductor, the metronome, the thoughtful general. He’s also 35-years old and needs to be used sparingly, presenting Mourinho with a dilemma; how can United operate efficiently without Carrick in the starting line-up?
Typically, United might look to the market and the January window is just weeks away, but by that time any new recruits arrive they could have too much to do if things don’t go well for United in December.
Yet, there may already be a solution within José’s squad that could provide temporary relief in the shape of Dutchman Daley Blind. The former Ajax player is the closest thing to a ‘Carrick-type’ at Old Trafford, and in a sense the idea of playing Blind in Carrick’s role seems obvious as the pair are both fantastic distributors of the ball, tactically disciplined and intelligent.
Blind suffered something of a false dawn in the holding midfield role on début when he shone against a mediocre Queens Park Rangers team. In subsequent matches the player struggled against opponents who could overload the area of the pitch where Blind was operating, exploiting the his lack of pace and physicality. Yet, much of Blind’s time in midfield was in Louis van Gaal’s 4-4-2 diamond, effectively leaving Blind isolated at the base of the midfield and exposed to on-rushing attackers.
Playing in a 4-3-3 could be more suited to Blind’s game as he would benefit from the dynamism of Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera to compensate for his own lack of pace. Each of the trio is a gifted technician, offering a passing range and level of guile the could form an effective middle three. Whatever the travails this season there is more than a modicum of talent in Mourinho’s squad.
Despite being a jack of all trades Blind does have the ability to master, to an acceptable level, the roles he has been assigned during his time at United – left-back, centre-back and occasionally as a holding midfielder. Are there better options around? At United, Blind should play second fiddle to Carrick, while the Dutchman will never be world-class in the role. Yet, therein lies a major issue – Carrick’s role is vital and there will be very few players of his quality available in the summer let alone during the upcoming January window.
"Carrick offers balance in defence and attack. He’s the conductor, the metronome, the thoughtful general. He’s also 35-years old and needs to be used sparingly."
Mourinho could plan to recruit Paris Saint Germain’s Marco Verratti, for example, or invest in Corentin Tolisso’s promise, but here and now the Portuguese manager must use the players available – and make it work. Another season out of the Champions League is not going to benefit anybody at the club, making next summer’s window all that more tricky.
Another argument in Blind’s promotion to ‘Carrick understudy’ is the notion that it is in United’s best interests to press on with with a 4-3-3 and not switch back to Mourinho’s favoured 4-2-3-1. Blind is not an ideal solution, but is the next best option if Carrick cannot play every game. Not least because the alternatives are all a compromise too: Bastian Schweinsteiger is in the shop window, Morgan Schneiderlin’s future at Old Trafford seems bleaker with each passing game, while Marouane Fellaini has never been suited to a defensive midfield role at any level.
Could Blind could become the apprentice to Carrick’s sorcerer and improve on past performances? The Dutchman is now used to the hustle and bustle of the English game, is intelligent enough to pick up the nuances of the position, while his passing has become more incisive from the heyday of Van Gaal’s sideways scrolls.
In the end, drafting Blind into midfield when Carrick needs a rest is a pragmatic strategy, but Mourinho is nothing if not a sober decision-maker. If the manager sees merit in playing a 4-3-3 over 4-2-3-1, regardless of whether Carrick is available or not, he will do it. The tools are available, the question remains whether he willing to use them.
More generally, while there is frustration at yet another two points lost, there are signs that Mourinho’s side could develop into a very good outfit. Chances are being created, game plans are clear, and the style is more expansive compared to last season’s approach.
While there is no single solution to address United’s inconsistency, the shift to a 4-3-3 appears to offer more fluidity given the players available. And if Carrick cannot player every week, then the next best thing is Blind.
Blind’s versatility could even help United discover and maintain a level of continuity as the Portuguese manager seeks for an elusive winning formula.