Throughout the history of football every successful team has had a player who’s contribution for their clubs supersedes their personal desire to attain headlines on the back of sports pages. For every Zinedine Zidane is a Didier Deschamps or Claude Makelele.
The quintessential team player on a football field is as vital a component to a team as the match winner himself. Ian Holloway said earlier this season:
“ It’s all very well having a great pianist playing but it’s no good if you haven’t got anyone to get the piano on the stage in the first place, otherwise the pianist would be standing there with no bloody piano to play.”
In the casing point of Manchester United, their version comes in the form of the ball playing central midfielder, Michael Carrick.
On Thursday, 3 March 2011, Sir Alex Ferguson said Michael Carrick had agreed to sign a new three year contract extension:
“ I am delighted Michael has signed a new contract, he has been outstanding since joining us from Tottenham in 2006. He is a true professional and it is great he has committed his future to the club.”
Whilst the sentiments of the manager extending his faith to one of his tried and tested stalwarts, the fans still can’t relate to this introverted, yet, effective team player. From pillar to post I have had many a discussion about Michael Carrick with both Manchester United fans, opposition fans and neutrals but conclusions on his contributions still remain cloudy.
Considering this is a player who has won three premier league titles and a champions league medal, you would expect the general consensus of him to be more certified but the opinions on his abilities remain as vague as I have come across in the realms of football spiel. No matter who I speak to I never hear the same view on him. In this article I will delve deeper to gain further understanding!
Jose Mourinho succeeds for a second time
In 2006 Manchester United succumbed to a second Premiership title loss to the almost revolutionary Jose Mourinho. Ferguson had the conquest of finding a suitable replacement for their all action captain, Roy Keane, who retired in 2005. At the time of his acrimonious departure, Ferguson alternated between the likes of Kleberson, Eric Djemba Djemba, Phil Neville, John O’Shea and Alan Smith. The lack of a quality holding midfielder to partner Paul Scholes became ever more important in the summer of 2006 as Chelsea looked to secure a third successive Premiership title.
At the time, the following names had been linked to add more class to our much maligned midfield. Names such as: Senna, Pirlo, Gattuso, Ballack, Essien, Danielle de Rossi and even Owen Hargeaves. These names wetted the beaks of all concerned at Old Trafford.
Ferguson opts for Carrick
Although not the marquee signing that the hearts of the fans desired, it came as no surprise when Ferguson opened the Glazer chequebook and spent 18million on the Tottenham Hotspur and England midfielder. His performances over the previous two seasons, in which Spurs had impressively finished 5th under an emerging Martin Jol team had warranted interest from bigger clubs and Ferguson returned in the summer having had a 10.1 million offer rejected in the January transfer window of that year.
Manchester United’s new number 16
Question marks over Carrick’s ability to influence games was one of the main issues for united fans prior to him signing. In many a game he would float around almost anonymously with his trademark ‘quiet effectiveness‘ but with the likes of Rooney, Saha, Ronaldo, Giggs and Scholes he was expected to excel with such offensive weapons on the tail end of those magnificent long range passes that contributed to him earning a move to the club in the first place.
The identification of Carrick’s style had not been solidified at that stage so it was unclear whether he was an out and out defensive midfielder or a play-maker with enough defensive qualities to play in Alex Ferguson’s attacking 4-4-2 system.
Five years on and it is clear what type of player he is. Carrick is a defensive midfielder who’s form depends on confidence. He is a player who, when on form, is able to see the bigger picture and ping passes with variety at alarming will. Many times over the years we have witnessed him spreading a 50 yard ball out wide at the blink of an eye and launched many counter attacks from his subtle interceptions. *Note his long ball to Ryan Giggs away to Chelsea in the build up to Rooney’s winner in the recent champion league match.
Carrick is an interceptor rather than a ‘tiggerish’ tackler, he’ll close down space rather than directly pressing an opponent, he’s more about acute positioning and defensive awareness rather than being a engine room for your team who imposes his will onto opponents. He‘s more interested in knitting together play and keeping the momentum of Man Utd’s continuous attacking moves instead of seeking that stylish assist. One thing is clear: Michael Carrick is more interested in the team ahead of personal accolades. It would seem that Carrick’s mission statement on the field would be to ‘’Keep the ball at all costs and feed the attackers.’’ The stats (at the time) below are evidence of this:
* Michael Carrick has completed 830 out of 959 attempted passes this season for Man Utd at a success rate of 86.5%. This success rate is highest of the season for a premiership midfielder starting over 50% of his club’s games.
* Michael Carrick has the most amount of interceptions for a midfielder in the premiership, averaging 4.38 a game This success rate is highest of the season for a premiership midfielder starting over 50% of his club’s games.
Between 2006 – 09 Michael Carrick was a vital cog in Manchester United’s three successive championships, successfully working in tandem with Paul Scholes where it was obvious that playing alongside a world class player suited his ball playing style as they dominated games both home and away in the Premiership. He and Paul Scholes offer our most telepathic partnership of all our potential midfield combinations. The balance worked perfectly and Ferguson proved his doubters wrong.
In dovetailing with Scholes, what Carrick added to Manchester United was a polished and calming assurance that even to this day goes unnoticed. Carrick is a midfielder partner as opposed to a catalyst who grabs games by the scruff on the neck.
We have been brought up in this country with 4-4-2 in our veins and every so often a player emerges and conflicts with the ideologies of what we expect from the usual characteristics of British players. I feel Carrick joins the likes of Joe Cole and Glenn Hoddle who many say ‘would have earned twice as many caps if they born in another country‘. Carrick’s style contradicts with the traditions of the all action, box to box midfielders we are accustomed to seeing such as Lampard, Gerrard or Parker. When a deep lying play-maker slows the play and dictates patterns in the Carrick mould then it is easy to appreciate why fans would be frustrated because they have never been able to identify with his continental style of play.
When you look at the comments of World Cup winner Xabi Alonso after the tournament it gives an insight into what we don’t always see here:
“ England missed a player like Carrick in the midfield, somebody who knows how to be in the right place at the right time. Gerrard gains a lot from having a player like Carrick as a partner, somebody who provides the back-up he needs to be free and bring his power to bear decisively in a game.”
To reiterate this point further, one of the best midfielders ever, Xavi, surprised journalists before the 2009 champions league final when he identified Carrick as the man to stop. The Spain star reckoned Carrick to be one of the outstanding players in Europe and had set his sights on unsettling the midfielder despite the constant coverage surrounding the star players such as: Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez. Xavi claimed to be concentrating on making sure Carrick didn’t run riot in Rome:
“ Carrick gives United a balance and can play defensively too, he passes very well, has a good shot and is a complete player.”
While a large percentage of people (in Britain) are cringing after reading those comments, but when an iconic player such as Xavi Hernandez pays attention to you, something must be going right.
You could argue that the champions league is more suited to his style as it’s more technical and slow paced. He is able to pick a pass in a domain of football whereby build up play is one of the key components for success. Against Schalke in Germany, he was magnificent in terms of dictating play in front of the back four and this stat shows what happens if you don’t close him down:
‘’ Michael Carrick made a game-high 56 passes in the first half v Schalke, completing 91% of them. Overall 98 of his 112 passes and 146 touches overall, more than Neuer and Jurado, Schalke’s two most involved.’’
Manchester United are the first ever team to keep six away clean sheets in a single Champions League season. It cannot be denied that Carrick’s defensive awareness is key when you consider that he has started 6/6 of those away matches. For example, against Chelsea it would’ve gone unnoticed that he intercepted 7 from 7 attempts, which was 4 more than any other player on the night.
Here is the most impressive stat I came across:
‘’ 66% – Of all players to have played 50+ Champions League games, Michael Carrick has the highest win percentage‘’.
Many would say the beginning the of his loss of form started in the champions league final where he was restricted, pressed and generally outshone by the effervescent duo of Xavi and Iniesta.
It was clear that his form, confidence and development stagnated after that final. His belief had been sapped and his game became even more pedestrian. His passing became shorter and less imaginative in comparison to previous years. (Not that you could accord imagination to his style). In conjunction with his loss of form came an evolution of tactics in the premiership where teams switched to a 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 when facing Manchester United. Such an evolution mean’t he was regularly face to face against five man midfield’s and pressed more than before, which also had an adverse effect on his form. I firmly believe his lack of confidence was shown last season when he was barged off the ball at home to Bayern Munich who went on score and cost us a place in the final against Inter Milan.
Although the stats in terms of ball retention and interceptions are high on a seasonal basis, the overall stats show that he doesn’t score enough goals (Vidic, a central defender, currently has a better goal scoring record than him) or influence games in the same manner as Darren Fletcher, for example. His inability to dominate opponents has contributed to United not being able control teams in away fixtures as we did before.
When you compare Carrick to what would normally be classed as a team player you could argue that he offers more than most, which is partly the cause of frustration for supporters. When you see a player who has the ability to pass both long and short with alarming accuracy, play within himself in such an introverted manner, ie sideways passing matched with a defensive minded approach against smaller teams (when he’s not on form) it’s clear to see why it would gnaw away at the patience of the non connoisseurs of football circles.
Even with England I feel pangs of disappointment when you contrast his natural ability to that of a Scott Parker or Gareth Barry, who are ahead of him in the pecking order. As such, it makes me wonder if he is complacent because he takes his ability for granted.
With Ferguson set to splash out on a more creative midfielder in the summer, add the re-emergence of Anderson and the recovery of the more energetic Darren Fleltcher, time remains to see whether his success in the first team will continue and inspire him to become more dynamic. Only time will tell.
Bryan Robson, Paul Ince, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes have set the benchmark in terms of orchestrating games in a consistent manner. All of whom brought some form of tenacity, energy and dynamism to proceedings. The aforementioned names remain in our hearts as legends and have set the template for what we desire from our midfielders. Will Michael Carrick be remembered in the same light?
At 29 years old, the jury should not, still, be out. Michael Carrick remains an enigma to Manchester United fans and as the stats prove you cannot underestimate the ‘silent influence of a team player’.
By Jeffrey Jacobs – Manchester United fan – @MrJeff_Jacobs