One story that has been doing the rounds recently has been that of Manchester United stalwart Michael Carrick leaving the club he joined a decade ago when his contract comes to an end this summer.
An £18.6 million signing from Tottenham at the start of another phase of domination under Sir Alex Ferguson, United’s present vice-captain and second longest serving player looks set to be the next of the old guard to step through an Old Trafford revolving door that has been spinning with increasing intensity and unceremonious brutality over the last couple of seasons.
On the face of it, ending the United career of a 34-year-old likely to play a far more infrequent role in a competitive central midfield position, which may well be strengthened in the close season, seems a rational decision. Yet it is not as midfield back-up that Louis van Gaal or whoever may replace him should consider the former West Ham youth player. It is as a centre-half.
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It may sound a curious claim but there are a number of arguments to support it. Firstly, Carrick has not only played there before on a number of occasions during his distinguished career, including in the recent victories over FC Midtjylland and Arsenal, but has performed well in a position that doesn’t have many dissimilarities to the deep-lying midfield role he made his own down the years.
It is not a novel responsibility for the man capped 34 times by his country. He was entrusted there by Ferguson on a number of occasions when injuries were taking their toll, such as the fine performance marshalling a makeshift back-three away to Wolfsburg in 2009. David Moyes and now Van Gaal have also regularly acknowledged Carrick’s ability and experience in the position when it has been needed.
Many characteristics make the Carrick-centre back combination a great match, such as his natural talent for reading the game and shrewd positional sense. He has shown before that he can handle the big target men and he is also able to drop off and anticipate the movement of quicker, niftier forwards.
He has never had to rely on natural pace so his diminishing speed isn’t that critical. His ability in the air cannot be doubted, as is the case with his tackling and gift for intercepting the play during opposition attacks, skills he has displayed frequently in midfield.
Yet most importantly, it is Carrick’s capacity as a clever ball player that could make him invaluable for United in a quarter-back role, instigating counter-attacks with his vision, range of passing and one-touch releases.
Seeing and distributing a quick pass can spring United forward with far greater intent and pace, while he’d be able to bring the ball out of defence in the manner that Van Gaal craves in his centre-halves. He plays with a control and authority on the ball that is vital against high-pressing teams, on pressured European nights and when astute game management and ball retention is needed. Carrick can have a calming presence in an often anxious defence.
He could fit comfortably into either a back four or three. You will often see Carrick slipping into the position from defensive midfield when United are attacking with the full backs pushing high. And, considering that most sides now play with just the one centre forward, you could question whether teams necessarily need two out and out central defenders in the modern game. Barcelona’s use of Javier Mascherano is the most obvious example.
Furthermore, United’s current central defensive options are hardly living up to the standards set by the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister. Individuals such as Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo spend more time on the treatment table than the pitch and Daley Blind has yet to really convince that he can be the defender that his coach envisages. Others such as Paddy McNair are not yet ready for the step-up. Carrick should be kept as another possible partner for Chris Smalling because the current alternatives are hardly inspiring.
He isn’t getting any younger but his experience, as well as his technical proficiencies, can only be a good thing for a youthful United defence. The Geordie is one of the few remaining players of the Ferguson-era, a symbol of the success that this transitional squad are aiming to emulate.
His experience remains crucial to younger players on and off the field; even if midfield rivalry makes it as a back-up central defender. It is highly unlikely that Carrick will want to step away yet to a less demanding league for the twilight phase of his career. You cannot imagine him turning down the chance of another season at United just because it would involve him playing in a makeshift position.
Van Gaal has used 36 different players in this tumultuous season for the red side of Manchester. Despite that, Carrick has so far been used 29 times by his manager. He still has a big role to play at the club. Even if it for just one more season – and even if it is as a central defender.