Michael Carrick did not feature in Manchester United’s handsome victories at Watford or Arsenal. The 35-year-old is still regaining fitness after a spell on the sidelines following detection of a worrying heart condition back in September. One suspects that the veteran midfielder will be enjoying the performances of fellow Englishmen Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard though; two revivalists enjoying life under José Mourinho. Not just because of Young’s successful reinvention as a decent left-back, or Lingard’s ascent to become United’s number 10, but the way each has transformed to get ahead. After all, Carrick is an avid student of the game.
The United number 7 is a shirt that carries plenty of history, albeit in recent times a jersey that was held by gifted yet ultimately lightweight talents. While the club is looking for a worthy successor to don the fabled number 7, José Mourinho is fully aware that a new number 16 could be required sooner rather than later.
It has been a season of inconsistency, a fact highlighted by José Mourinho’s indecision when it comes to his starting team. Case in point, Mourinho has named the same line up in consecutive matches just once this season, at home to Southampton followed by the trip to Hull City. While injuries can disrupt team selection, Manchester United lies 15th on the ‘injury league table’ this season. In truth, it is far more likely reason that constant tinkering is the result of Mourinho not knowing his best side. But one point of consistent excellence this season has been Michael Carrick.
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?
“I changed Herrera because I wanted to waste time – what Swansea were doing the whole match,” admitted Louis van Gaal after his side’s 2-1 defeat of the Swans. Manchester United’s was a welcome, if nervy victory on Saturday, but lost among all that was the fact that Michael Carrick, the Spaniard’s replacement, was making his 400th appearance for the club. Read More
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.
There is a certain romance about Manchester United’s play this season; an innocent we’ll-score-one-more-than you attitude that is a refreshing change from the stifled tactics of so much modern football. Yet, United’s plethora of attacking talent has been forced to work at its maximum simply because Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have defended so poorly. The Reds may be top goalscorers in the Premier League this season, but there is a vulnerability that is likely to prove costly against the nation’s finer teams.
Indeed, not only has Ferguson’s team defended with sometimes comic ineptitude this season, but United has picked up an unfortunate habit of conceding early goals. The Reds have now fallen behind in eight of 12 matches this season – a run that has included two Premier League defeats, with more surely to come unless Ferguson can right a listing ship.
Just four points behind Chelsea domestically, and a point away from qualification for the knock out stages in Europe, there is little, superficially at least, for Ferguson to fret over. Yet, United’s 70-year-old manager will appreciate as well as any just how destructive poor defending is likely to be in fixtures to come this season, not least the Reds’ visit to Stamford Bridge this Sunday.
The greatest worry, however, is that short of reigning in United’s attacking instincts, Ferguson can do little more with the resource at his disposal. It is a weakness that threatens to undermine the club’s season.
“I can’t understand our defending. It’s been the story of our season,” admitted Ferguson after United beat SC Braga at Old Trafford on Tuesday.
“Starting badly and losing goals and fighting back to rescue games. It’s the front players who are doing that for us. Some of our football was terrific, some fantastic football. We created a lot of chances. But it is a concern we are losing goals.
“I can’t get to the bottom of it. If you analyse all the goals we are losing, they are all different types, a cross and then a cutback and players free in the box. It is difficult to put my finger on it. We are certainly not getting good starts to games, that’s for sure. We will sort it, I am sure of that.”
Ferguson’s problems start in the engine room where no combination of the half-dozen central midfielders at the club is able to provide the kind protection a fragmented back-four desperately requires. True, injuries have occurred with little respite, with Nemanja Vidić, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones still out, while Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans have also missed game in the campaign. But United’s trouble runs deeper.
The only constant may be change in United’s back-four, yet there are problems of Ferguson’s own making too. Indeed, Braga’s early double at Old Trafford this week owed much to the manager’s baffling decision to deploy Michael Carrick at centre-half. The 30-year-old Geordie may have fine defensive instincts, but that does not always make a defender of the highest quality. This much has become obvious in the dozen or so games Carrick has played in the centre of defence over the past three years; a truism Ferguson oddly denies.
“I think we did the right thing,” adds Ferguson
“It wasn’t Michael Carrick’s fault for the first goal. He did his job well. You have to look at the big picture, Rio at his age, with a big game against Chelsea on Sunday, Chelsea on the Wednesday, Arsenal Saturday. We have a massive programme and it is important to utilise the squad. OK, at the moment with Vidić out and Jones and Smalling not available then putting Michael back there is not the best, but he did his job well.”
This is an observation reserve defenders Scott Wootton and Michael Keane will ponder, although the point is moot if Ferguson has no faith in the young pair against one of the Europe’s weaker opponents.
More serious, though, is that question of tactical balance in a side that will surely be stumped by the next opponent that can defend with solidity and break at genuine speed. It has left Ferdinand in particular exposed at times, not least in recent matches at Old Trafford against Tottenham Hotspur and Stoke City.
In midfield Carrick’s defensive instincts in the holding role offer much, but when deployed alongside 37-year-old Paul Scholes the former Spurs player is forced to cover far too much ground for comfort. Meanwhile, neither Tom Cleverley nor Anderson offer the requisite protection, and Darren Fletcher is only just returning to full fitness. Far too often has United been open to the simplest of counter-attacks.
The genuine concern, of course, is that no combination will solve the problem in central midfield, and United’s defence will continue to suffer as a result. This is an argument bolstered by Ferguson himself, who has deployed a narrow midfield diamond in recent matches at CFR Cluj and Newcastle United in an attempt to offer a little more solidity.
This is a tactical shake-up that may not have blunted the side’s goalscoring, but certainly ensures Rooney, Cleverley and Shinji Kagawa are deployed outside their best positions.
It is easy to proffer that Ferguson would countenance no such tactical shenanigans if, for example, he was able to deploy Scholes and Roy Keane in their pomp. This is an observation that leads to an obvious conclusion – the real debate is less about tactics and injuries than it is about personnel – and begs a tougher question – why has United stocked up on attacking talent, ignoring once again the imbalance in the squad?
“We can’t keep doing that,” admitted Rooney after United conceded two sloppy goals against Stoke. “If we want to be successful this season, we can’t keep doing that.”
It is a rejoinder that might apply to more than one aspect of United’s defending this season.
Love him, hate him, Michael Carrick has divided supporter opinion like few other modern Manchester United players. Superb during his début season with the club, only to suffer an 18 month slump after the 2009 Champions League final. But the Wallsend-born midfielder has returned to form with gusto this season… (right-click ‘open in new tab’ for the full size image)
Michael Carrick’s goal against Queens Park Rangers on Sunday was 70 games coming; two long years since the Geordie midfielder had last struck for Manchester United in any competition. In that time, for all Carrick’s understated excellence, the midfielder has struggled both to maintain the form of pre-2008 and a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. Indeed, such was the former Tottenham Hotspur man’s perceived slump that many United supporters had called time on the 30-year-old’s career. No longer, with Carrick demonstrating his renewed value to the cause over the past two months.
Excellent once again in United’s 2-0 win at Loftus Road, Carrick not only scored United’s vital second, but demonstrated the kind of dynamic drive that many believed he had lost. The goal may have been rare, but the performance wasn’t a one-off either – Carrick excelled against Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend. Ditto in the Reds’ win at Aston Villa, and in many of United’s matches post defeat to Manchester City in October.
Indeed, in the absence of so many central midfielders – Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Darren Fletcher, even Darron Gibson – Carrick’s reassuring presence has been vital to the club’s resurgence, domestically at least, over the past two months. But few supporters, even the most ardent Carrick supporters, would have predicted the midfielder’s mazy run and calm finish in west London on Sunday.
“The last time I scored a goal from inside my own half was probably when I was playing under-12s!” said Carrick.
“It just seemed to open up for me and I kept on going and going and thought: ‘Why not?’. It was great to see it go in. We had so many chances in the game, so many opportunities to get a shot on target… I was starting to wonder if it was going to be one of those days. So I was delighted to see it go in, though, even if the run seemed to take forever.
“We were definitely a bit disappointed [at half-time]. We created a lot of chances but the final ball just didn’t go our way. We were wary because we knew the game was still on a knife-edge. In those situations all it takes is one goal and the game changes. That’s why it was crucial to score a second goal. Even after that we had chances to score more. Hopefully we can add that to our game and score a few more in the future.”
Carrick has always excelled at rotating possession, easing United from defence into attack, and the player has offered far more protection to United’s back-four than he is given credit for. But the Geordie’s lack of dynamism, and his perceived passivity, has held the player back, both at United and for England. The player’s performance in two Champions League final defeats to Barcelona was so underwhelming that it genuinely shocked.
Moreover, it is a truism that Carrick has never completed a 30 game Premier League season, and only once started more than 40 games for the club in all competitions over a campaign. It is not enough for a player who is fit more often than not; a player whose talents have not always come to the fore.
The question now is not whether Carrick can become the player so many United fans miss in Roy Keane, but the performer the side has rarely seen for two years. After all, Carrick, now into his 30s, isn’t going to become the Irish midfielder overnight, and for that many fans will never come to lionise the £16 million player. But he could, if this form holds, once again form a central plank of United’s campaign for a 20th domestic title this season.
“When Michael Carrick scored that second goal I think that put it to bed,” said Ferguson of the midfielder’s run and shot against QPR. “He’s supposed to sit in the middle of the pitch. I’ll maybe have to fine him! But he’s right bang on form, Michael, he’s been terrific in the last few weeks and we’re pleased with that.”
Alongside Phil Jones in midfield, Carrick has been given additional freedom to break forward, using his attacking as well as those defensive skills. Meanwhile Jones, criticised by Keane for a lack of focus after United’s 2-1 loss to FC Basel in the Champions League a fortnight ago, has added energy to the centre of the park in Fletcher’s prolonged absence, even if the pairing is not nearly as creative as many supporters would like.
“Phil is only 19 years of age but he’s got tremendous potential and he has great energy,” added Ferguson of the £16 million capture from Blackburn Rovers.
“You saw today, he’s up and down the pitch making fantastic runs through the middle, he could have scored two or three today. He hit the post, the goalkeeper made a good save, his energy is really important to the team at the minute.”
Jones will eventually move back into defence this season, and the natural central defender’s occasional lack of positional sense in midfield will be more sorely tested than against Wolves and QPR. Each is genuinely in a relegation dog-fight. After all, Jones’ least impressive performance of the season came, arguably, in central midfield against Liverpool earlier this season.
In the meantime the Preston-born player is providing an excellent foil to Carrick, whose personal renaissance is well underway. The question is: will it last?