The summer of 2006. The balance of power in English seemingly shifting to London as Chelsea had secured their first back-to-back league titles in their history, while Arsenal had come within twenty minutes of their first Champions League trophy. Shevchenko and Ballack – both in their pomp – agreed moves to Stamford Bridge.
Manchester United appeared to be on the verge of turmoil as a solitary League Cup success was mere sticking plaster to cover the gaping wounds of no league title in three years – United’s longest barren spell since the Premiership was created. They had been eliminated in the group stages of the Champions League too. Ruud van Nistelrooy had become the latest high profile name to depart the club. Rumours were rife that Cristiano Ronaldo wanted out following the English media’s brutal and relentless witch-hunt of the teenage prodigy. Football pundits across the land were relishing in United’s apparent downfall and many predicted them to finish outside the top four, with Ferguson bowing out of the game.
That summer Ferguson made only permanent signing: Michael Carrick. He didn’t come cheaply as the total cost of the transfer ran up to £18 million – United’s sixth highest transfer fee at the time. The decision to give Carrick the number 16 shirt only added to the pressure. The shirt had been vacated by club captain Roy Keane eight months earlier.
In the six and a half years since, Carrick has picked up four Premiership winners medals, a Champions League medal, a League Cup medal and was on the winning side in the World Club Cup. The midfielder has been virtually an ever-present in that time.
Yet Carrick has notoriously divided opinion. He has been criticised for not having enough pace. He has been criticised for not tackling enough. He has been criticised for being too sluggish in his style of play. He has been criticised for lacking in confidence and concentration. He has been criticised for not scoring enough goals. He has been criticised for not providing enough killer balls.
Despite being a permanent fixture and a crucial clog in the best side in the country for over half a decade, he has not once been voted into the PFA team of the year in this time. By comparison, thirteen of his United team-mates have featured in this spell, most more than once. He has won only 26 England caps in his career, being overshadowed by the duo of Lampard and Gerrard. Despite his country crying out for a player who embraces and maintains the ball, the man most suited to this role has been consistently and criminally overlooked.
Successive English managers were too fixated with facilitating box-to-box midfielders, with qualities of relentless energy and urgency to their play. Perhaps they should have looked at how Carrick was deployed at Old Trafford. A calming influence sitting in front of the back four, with consistently excellent qualities of intercepting and breaking up opposition attacks, before kick-starting United counter’s with swift and incisive passing.
Sir Alex Ferguson deliberately bought Carrick to replace Keane, and this was without doubt one of his biggest gambles in recent times. Keane epitomised tenacity, ferociousness and leadership, whereas Carrick embodies calmness, coolness and precision. The contrast could not be sharper. Ferguson realised that if United were to see off the fresh challenge of Chelsea, and to challenge at the top of European football, they needed a new style of play. A new vision. Carrick provided it.
It was the rip-roaring counter-attacking ruthlessness of Ronaldo, Rooney and company which took all the headlines in the years that followed. The fluidity and deadliness of United’s play made them the best side in Europe. But whilst his team-mates took all the headlines and all that acclaim, Carrick went quietly and efficiently doing his job. Game after game he would link defence to attack seamlessly.
The United System of 4-2-3-1 meant that Carrick was required to supply the attacking quarter with the ammo they needed, and they would take care of the rest. Central midfield partners came and went – Fletcher, Scholes, Giggs, Anderson, Hargreaves and Park all had spells but none had the consistency and proficiency of the West Ham youth graduate.
It was all going so swimmingly up until a fateful night in Rome, May 2009. A midfield of Anderson, Carrick and Giggs were dominated by a Barcelona side whose style and quality of play would go on to dominate world football. Carrick described it as the worst night of his career: “the game just seemed to pass us by and we were unable to do anything about it.”
That night demonstrated the major flaw in Carrick’s style – he struggles under intense pressure and this invariably leads to errors, which in turn erodes confidence. Barcelona’s pressing and swagger on the ball was phenomenal, and once again Ferguson would have to flirt with new formations.
For the seasons that followed United reverted back to their more traditional 4-4-2, with new signing Valencia and Nani providing the width. The success on the pitch stalled somewhat, as a period of adjustment to new tactics and new players inevitably took a slight toll on the squad. Carrick was also notably weakened by the absences of Darren Fletcher, whose illness meant he missed large chunks of seasons that followed. The Scot was a superb compliment to Carrick. His battling style and commendable work-rate allowed Carrick that extra touch on the ball to show his quality.
Carrick’s role is a skill which is often overlooked by the British football culture. As alluded to earlier, there is a fascination with box-to-box midfielders. British culture appreciates players who will run and run, appearing to show great effort and determination despite limited ability to keep the ball. It’s an endearing feature as it demonstrates the player is willing to ‘give his all’. Fans won’t mind if the player is technically lacking, but if he’s seen to be putting his heart into the game then how can you complain?
The English national side falls short of being a top team in this respect – there is simply a gulf in class between their ball retention and that of the very top nations. Gerrard, Lampard, Henderson, Barry, Wilshere, Milner and many others have been preferred to Carrick in recent selections. This, to me, is very poor squad selection.
Another social aspect working against Carrick is ‘Match of the Day’. If you want insightful, in-depth analysis of how Premiership matches have gone, avoid this show at all costs. The programme shows a short package of highlights from each match, but due to the nature of his game, Carrick is rarely mentioned. His recent ‘Man of the Match’ performance at Swansea did probe Alan Shearer into a short string of clichéd sentences about his usefulness. It was, to my knowledge, the first time Carrick had been discussed on the show all season.
For regular viewers of United though, the majority recognise and appreciate the true worth of Carrick’s role. The midfielder has blossomed this season into United’s finest performer, van Persie aside. He is more confident, self-assured and surefooted. He has played a higher percentage of his passes forwards than Mikel Arteta, Yaya Toure, and Steven Gerrard this season, a stat in-line with United’s mass goal spree to date.
This has been helped by Tom Cleverley’s regular presence in the side. Cleverley provides quickness of body and mind, pressing the opposition and forcing them into surrendering possession of the ball. His competitiveness gives Carrick that extra yard on the ball which he has exploited more often than not.
Wayne Rooney’s deeper role helps too – hustling and harrying the opposition’s midfield in similar fashion to Cleverley. Van Persie’s arrival has taken the expectation of goals off Rooney’s shoulders, but his newly found role is no less pivotal to United’s fortunes.
Another addition to the ranks at Old Trafford over summer was Japanese playmaker Shinji Kagawa – a delightful talent whose inventiveness and ingenuity unlocks the most stubborn defences. His presence, despite being limited by injuries thus far, encourages the artful Carrick and energetic Cleverley to engage in clever and incisive interchanges. Aesthetically pleasing, but more importantly: effective.
Effective is an apt description of Michael Carrick. Unfortunately, overlooked and underrated are other descriptions that would apply to his career.
Summing up his current campaign in one moment would be straightforward. United’s Boxing Day clash with Newcastle ticked into extra-time at the end of a frenetic match finely poised at three goals apiece. The match was relentlessly end-to-end and breath-taking. Suddenly, Carrick collects the ball just inside the opponent’s half, composes himself and lofts a perfect 25-yard pass forward for Javier Hernandez to run onto and score the winner. Keeping his head when all those around him are losing theirs is a Carrick trademark. It’s one that should be more widely appreciated.