You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Til It’s Gone: United’s Carrick Problem

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United is characterized by a rigid defensive shape and a hit-or-miss attack. In 8 of their games in all competitions, they have scored 4 goals in a single match, but they have struggled to string together successive passes against the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea. United are plagued by the lack of a controlling midfielder, a gap that has so long been filled by the one-and-only Michael Carrick.

As one analyzes Carrick’s long tenure at United, they think of the names that have come and gone: Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin van Persie, Nemanja Vidić, Rio Ferdinand. Amid this flurry of change, Carrick has been the sole constant, a figure of consistency and enduring class. You don’t see Michael Carrick until he’s not there.

The acclaim for Carrick among the professional sphere is second-to-none: Sir Alex Ferguson has claimed he was the “best English player in the game;” Paul Scholes has applauded his ability to allay panic while “parading around the pitch like a Rolls-Royce;” and lastly, Thierry Henry claimed that “people don’t realize the amount of work Carrick delivers until he is gone.”

Although the upper echelons of the footballing hierarchy recognize the simple genius of Michael Carrick, it is amongst the fans that his contributions are criminally underrated. It takes a special eye to discern his impact, and most of the footballing world possesses no such eye. With the impact of statistics in the modern game, footballers who don’t show up on the goals and assists charts tend to fall wayward of the public eye.

In 460 games with United, he has racked up 23 goals and 36 assists, a contribution that seems all too minimal to the modern statistician; however, one must surpass the superficiality of data points and transcend into the lofty tiers of deeper analyses to discover the sheer greatness of the English midfielder.

One of Carrick’s most important attributes is his awareness of what surrounds him. Praised by fellow midfield maestro Xabi Alonso for his ability to make “those around him play” and allow the team to function as a collective, Carrick lets his brain assume the brunt of his work. As Andrea Pirlo eloquently put it, “football is played with the head. Your feet are just the tools.”

It is this innate understanding that is paramount to Carrick’s game – his anticipation enables him to cut out danger before it even substantiates. In a way, Carrick’s simplicity resembles that of ‘El Pulpo,’ Barcelona’s very own Sergio Busquets: they’re tasked with always staying one step ahead of the game. Their intelligence allows them to dictate the tempo, without chasing across the pitch tirelessly.

Through the years, Carrick has assumed a less advanced role, more reserved to defensive duties than making long, line-breaking runs into the offensive third that defined his early years under Ferguson. For this reason, the performances of his latter years have flown under the radar, but have often catalyzed United’s hunt for silverware. Never the most skillful player, he was often United’s most irreplaceable.

Fast forward to the present. Carrick is due to retire at the end of the season, and has only made 2 appearances due to cardiac ablation, a heart problem that caused an abnormal heart rhythm. He recently made his return against Yoevil Town in the FA Cup, his first cameo in over 4 months. His return is heartwarming, but uncertainties remain regarding his role at United in the remaining months of the campaign.

Carrick’s absence has correlated with a continuous struggle for control during matches. Effective possession has been something that United have lacked most of the season, with the Pogba-Matic double pivot proving practical but not harmonious.

If you have watched most of United’s games this season, you’d be able to recognize a habitual stagnation of creativity against deep block teams. The playing styles of Matic and Pogba are very dynamic, but their ability to simply maintain possession and play line-breaking passes can come into question. To understand their shortcomings, it is important to analyze what each player offers to the collective.

First: Nemanja Matic. The 29-year-old Serbian has enjoyed a fruitful prime in the Premier League, demonstrating his proficiency as a defensive midfielder. Excellent at breaking up attacks and putting in elegant challenges, the defensive side of his game is world-class; however, what he lacks is the ability to drive forward and create. Defense-splitting passes are not his forté, and the variety of passes in his locker is lackluster. His inability to contribute offensively allows opposition defenses to force possession to the Serbian, confidently knowing his passes will likely be sideways or backwards, not a problem for a deep block setup.

His partner-in-crime is the one-and-only Paul Pogba, United’s eccentric superstar. A dynamic, box-to-box midfielder, his playstyle is suitably balanced, equally capable of playing a perfectly weighted through ball as making a tackle. He’s said so himself that he prefers being relieved of defensive duty, but his well-roundedness means Mourinho is willing to deploy him alongside Matic. Although his creativity and vision is up there with the best, formation and supporting cast limits him, and you can observe visible frustration from the Frenchmen against disciplined deep block sides.

The Matic-Pogba double pivot isn’t sustainable for a control-style philosophy. Matic’s limits, Pogba’s dilemma, and the formation don’t allow for successful control of possession, but the solution may lie amid United’s own ranks.

Mourinho and his side may benefit from a switch to a 4-3-3 variant formation for several reasons. For one, it could raise Pogba to the zenith of his game, given his proficiency at playing on the left of a three-man midfield under Allegri at Juventus. Also, it would suit a more control-oriented approach, which could solve some of United’s creativity problems against the deep block.

One of the key elements that could dictate their success is personnel, and Michael Carrick perfectly fills the void in United’s midfield. His simplistic play style would complement the rambunctious nature of Pogba, and his capacity to play a threaded ball that bypasses the first line of defense would keep defenses on their toes. If the opposition chooses to suffocate Pogba, Carrick will find himself with time and space, and with his passing spray, United would keep the opposition chasing. His diverse pass selections would leave defenders second-guessing, and would leave a bigger question mark in their minds than the presence of Matic.

At this point in time, United still trail crosstown rivals City by a dozen points, and at this rate, Pep and co. will run rampant for the remainder of the campaign. If Mourinho wants to shake up the title race, he should look within for change, specifically to Michael Carrick. His adept midfield play brings simplicity, stability, and control to United’s squad, an aspect of play they are in desperate need for.

Writer: Brandon Duran/@alcxntara6