The 2014/15 campaign has been an up-and-down one for Manchester United. With early-season struggles, a top-four place was looking questionable. Then an impressive run of six consecutive wins appeared to all-but secure the Red Devils a Champions League place next term.
However, three defeats on the bounce without scoring has re-introduced an element of doubt into the mix. Despite still having a four-point lead on fifth-placed Liverpool, a tough last three fixtures makes qualification for Europe's elite club competition an uncertainty.
With away trips to Crystal Palace and Hull City still to come, as well as a big home game against Arsenal, United's recent performances mean there is still a chance that Brendan Rodgers's side can catch their rivals.
A major factor for this downturn in form of late is the absence of Michael Carrick. The central midfielder has proven to be a key player for Manchester United over the past few years, with his ability to control the tempo of a football match, as well as his defensive work, crucial in making United tick.
Without his presence in midfield, the defence looks more exposed, but moreover, United's tempo becomes too slow and lethargic, demonstrated in their last two defeats against Everton and West Bromwich Albion in particular.
Despite having a lot of possession, the number of good chances created has decreased and has resulted in no goals scored since the 4-2 victory in the Manchester derby almost a month ago.
The statistics further show Carrick's importance in the Manchester United team, when comparing their form with him in the side to their form without him in the side.
Manchester United league form with Michael Carrick
P16 W12 D3 L1 - Points 39
Manchester United league form without Michael Carrick
P19 W7 D5 L7 - Points 26
The fact that Manchester United have picked up 13 more points in games where Carrick has played, and in three fewer matches, just shows how key he is to their success.
Had United had Carrick available for more fixtures this season, a case could be made that they would have already secured a top-four place and maybe pushed Chelsea a bit closer in the title race, although it is unlikely that they would have usurped the new Premier League champions.
With Carrick now pushing 34, a focus for Manchester United in the next few years is to find a replacement for their vice-captain, someone who can control a football match as well as him, whilst providing solidity in front of the back four.
They have been heavily linked with Borussia Dortmund midfielder Ilkay Gundogan, and a £21.5 million move has been mooted. Whether he would be a replacement for Carrick or another central midfield option, Gundogan would be a good option to bring in this summer.
Regardless, the importance of Michael Carrick to the Manchester United side cannot be underestimated.
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