The story of Michael Carrick’s time at Manchester United is a fascinating one.
He was always one of the first names on the teamsheet under the great Sir Alex Ferguson and has continued to be a key part of procedures under new manager David Moyes. His performances in last season’s title-winning side earned him a place in the Premier League PFA Team of the Year and saw Carrick awarded the coveted prize of the Manchester United Players’ Player of the Year.
Only Robin Van Persie, who featured in every single game, played more games than Carrick in a campaign last year which saw United comfortably regain their title from city rivals Manchester City.
Despite all of this, there are groups of Manchester United fans who despise Carrick and fail to recognise what he brings to the side. ‘He only passes the ball sideways’ they cry, ‘he lacks passion!’ and ‘He never scores. In fact he barely ever shoots!’
These fans want to see another Roy Keane type character in midfield, someone who will cover every blade of grass as a bare minimum each time they take to the field.
Also, Carrick’s apparent importance to United has not led to any influential role with the England national team. He has only earned 27 international caps in the seven years he has spent with the Red Devils. To put this into context, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard has represented his country 69 times, whilst Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard has earned 65 caps, in that same period.
All of this begs a very important question: Just who is Michael Carrick? Is he the playmaking central midfielder so crucial to his side’s fortunes? Or simply a sideways-passing liability that United could do without?
Carrick is, in footballing terms, a deep lying playmaker.
This means he has the responsibility of controlling ball circulation and then triggering the transition phase into offensive play. In other words, he is the reference point of Manchester United’s possession and the founder of their attacks.
His role then, is very different to that of Roy Keane, a true box-to-box midfielder, both in and out of possession. Keane was given the freedom to charge around the pitch, closing down, tackling and generally getting in the face of his opponents. However, football has changed an awful lot in the short time since Keane’s retirement; it has become much less physical.
Carrick’s role therefore, is much more restrained and requires a different skill set. He relies upon his intelligence and positioning to protect the United defence, allowing his midfield partner(s) to roam around the pitch whilst still ensuring his side maintains the right balance in the defensive phases of the game.
One of Carrick’s most potent tools is his ability to intercept opposition passes before they reach the strikers — a crucial facet to the game of any modern holding midfielder. With more emphasis being placed upon systems and structure, and with physical confrontation occurring less regularly in football, there are fewer opportunities to win the ball back and possession has become vital in the bid to control a game.
Therefore, players who have the ability to apply brains over brawn are being favoured more often. We regularly hear pundits talking about ‘playing in between the lines’, Carrick’s interceptions and footballing intelligence have made him one of the best at defending ‘in between the lines’ of midfield and defence and this is why he is so vital to his side.
In many ways, the transition in the heart of the United midfield from Roy Keane to Michael Carrick symbolises the changes football has seen in recent years, so drawing direct comparisons between the two players is utterly unfair.
Carrick’s role when United are in possession of the ball is also often a topic of debate. Some claim he restricts his side’s quick attacks with passes lacking in penetration. They tell us Carrick only passes the ball sideways or backwards, that he does not score enough goals or contribute enough assists to warrant his consistent selection.
Now, we have already established that Carrick is a ‘deep-lying playmaker’, his role is to build attacks, not finish them.
Whilst it is true that you will not often find Carrick’s name on the scoresheet come Saturday evening, more often than not he will have had a role in the build-up to anything his side have created. He receives the ball in deep areas and, despite what the nay-sayers will claim, his first intention is to play a forward pass. If this is not possible he will not force the issue. He will simply ensure his side maintains possession of the football by completing a simple pass.
He will continue to do this until there is a clear opportunity to play a ball which will penetrate the opposition’s first defensive line and release one of United’s attacking players. Through doing this over the course of an entire match, Carrick is able to dictate the tempo of a game. This has its benefits both when United are winning and losing. If his side lead, Carrick is able to frustrate the opposition further by keeping the ball away from them for lengthy periods, drawing them out of position and therefore giving more space to United players in more advanced, dangerous areas.
\However, if his side is trailing in a game, Carrick’s control over possession will force the opposition deeper and closer to their own goal. This allows United to build sustained pressure and often leads to crucial late goals. Whilst Carrick’s role in this is not obvious, it is pivotal.
In short, he is the central figure to everything Manchester United do when in possession of the football.
There are deliberately no passing statistics included in this article because, as many of Carrick’s doubters state, they can often be misleading and are not everything when it comes to analysing a player. Besides, there is much more to Carrick than his pass completion rate. His influence and importance to this United side should not be underestimated and could be something worth bearing in mind for Roy Hodgson as he prepares for the World Cup.
Despite this, the 32-year-old does not receive the recognition he deserves from a huge percentage of British football fans. There does seem to be somewhat of an over-riding issue here, something which transcends the debate over the selection of Manchester United’s midfield.
Could Carrick be a victim of the footballing culture currently in place in England?
Here in the UK, we have a culture of getting the ball forward as quickly as possible, which leads to more goal-mouth action and, in turn, more goals. This preference for high octane entertainment over a patient, tactical battle for control of a game fits in perfectly with the marketing of the Premier League as the ‘most entertaining league in the world’.
Another contributor to this footballing culture is the fact that match tickets are outrageously expensive and subscriptions to Sky Sports and BT Sport are equally costly, this leads to a large percentage of Britain’s footballing fan base only having access to football through highlight shows such as Match of the Day, during which games are crammed into around 10 minutes of intense action.
The combination of these two factors means we, the British football fans, have become accustomed to witnessing football (perhaps quite rightly from a fans’ perspective) as explosive entertainment.
However, this has led to us under-appreciating those players, such as Carrick, who have the ability to control a game through possession of the football for the full 90 minutes. If Carrick passes the ball entirely sideways or backwards for a five minute spell and his side maintain possession for the duration of this time, it is considered to be negative and lacking in ambition by fans used to seeing chaotic goal-mouth action, when in reality, what has happened is that his side has been in a position of complete control for five minutes.
After all, if the opposition does not touch the ball, they cannot score. This is the approach adopted by Spain, Barcelona and Bayern Munich in recent times. It seems to have worked out fairly well for them, does it not?
The mentioning of Spain at this point seems apt.
After recent international tournament failures, English players have often been criticised by the media for not being good enough in possession of the ball. This again, can be linked to the footballing culture.
Because of the desire to get the ball forward as quickly as possible, the English players find themselves attempting more difficult passes due to the excellent organisation of other international football teams and the pressure imposed on them through national expectation. This greatly increases the likelihood of losing the ball, thus surrendering control of possession.
If we look at Spain, they often string 10-20 passes together before attempting an attack, dragging the opposition out of their shape and tiring them, waiting for the opportune moment. All of this occurs whilst being in total control of the situation.
Now, this has been labelled by some as ‘boring’, but it only seems tedious when compared with the gung-ho approach we see every week in the Premier League.
This patient, strategic build-up method is the most effective form of winning that is currently implemented in the game, and the reality is, you need players like Michael Carrick in order to implement this style.
If England embraced this approach it could, in the long term, have the same implications as it did for the Spanish national game. Winning a first World Cup trophy since 1966 and two European Championships to go with it would not be particularly boring, would it?
One final thought, if Carrick really is as poor as the ‘non-believers’ claim, then why on earth was he consistently one of the first names on the team sheet during his years playing under the greatest manager in the history of the game?
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