Following the news that Michael Carrick had signed a new 3 year contract, opinions were divided. Many criticised his use to the side; “What does he even do?” He was lambasted for being a passenger, a mere bystander in the games he played. Carrick’s fans maintained their ground – “He’s essential to the team” they said, “it’s difficult to see what he really does.” So what exactly is that?
Michael Carrick is no stranger to this sort of criticism, it has followed him his whole career. Despite managing to secure a £18m move to the biggest side in England, he was still “useless”. Jol, Ferguson and co saw something in him though.
During the best period of his career, Carrick was a playmaker. It was his long, transitional balls from defence to attack that attracted the admiration of Alex Ferguson. “Michael’s biggest quality is to move play from defence to attack and win the ball. Because of him, other players play better” said Martin Jol. At least back then, you could see his excellent passing range, but what about making others play better? Carrick’s intelligence and positional awareness meant that players around him had a net to fall back on. His simple passing kept the ball moving and he was able to dictate the flow of the game, without the need to be vocal or physical.
The Champions League final in 2009 was when things started to go wrong for Carrick though. He was well and truly annihilated in midfield by Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. He was totally rattled, unable to play the simplest of passes. This loss of form continued. After all, in the manner that Carrick plays, confidence is a huge factor. If you know mentally that you can, without a shadow of a doubt, make a pass, you will do it most of the time. However, if you have second thoughts, you lose your edge, you lose the ability to read the game through almost sheer paranoia, and your nerves get the better of you.
The 2009/10 season was a low point for Carrick. Many concluded that he was past his peak and that he should be sold on in the Summer. Carrick displayed timid, almost “cowardly” performances time after time. Where the exquisite long balls of a few years back?
They were gone, but not out of fear, but rather through re-invention. Carrick had been re-invented into a simpler, and arguably more important, midfielder. Carrick’s long passing was essential in Utd’s counter-attacking, straight to wide areas football. However, over time, and probably due to the injury of Antonio Valencia, Man Utd have changed their game. This season we’ve seen a different Man Utd – not the old direct, fast Man utd – and in turn seen a different Carrick.
Carrick has completed 780 passes having attempted 898, this season. His pass completion rate is an astonishing 86.9%, a figure that would be impressive for any player in the world. In fact, the two best passers in the world – Xavi and Xabi Alonso – have complimented Carrick’s ability on more than one occassion. ” He reads the game so well, he is always ahead of what is going to happen and he is always in the right position. When he gets the ball, he plays it easy and he is available to his team-mates all the time. For me, he has the profile to play for Barcelona or any of the Spanish teams” (Xabi Alonso). His critics though will argue that those passes are only backwards or sideways, he lacks the instinct to get forward. This in itself misses the point – Carrick’s role in the side is to keep the ball moving, make simple passes, and always offer an out ball for players. If you look at the actual statistics and chalkboards for Carrick’s passing, you will see that the “backwards and sideways” argument is baseless anyway. Carrick is capable of making long, “attacking” passes, but that is not his primary concern.
Defensively, Carrick has proven himself to be outstanding. Whilst he may not be physically strong, and does not look like a player who would be effective defensively, he still proves to be excellent in this area. Statistically, Carrick has made 4.38 interceptions per game, more than any other midfielder in the Premiership. If you compare that Darren Fletcher, who is known for his “steel” and ability to “win the midfield”, Fletcher has only made 1.54 interceptions per game. He may not “get stuck in” in the same manner as Fletcher, but statistically he’s been more effective than him. Why go in for tackles when you can intercept play? Going in for tackles risks giving away a foul, getting carded, and potentially causing injury. Of course not everyone can simply go around intercepting play – it requires the ability to read the game and this is arguably Carrick’s greatest strength. As Xabi Alonso explained, he is always in the right position at the right time.