Is Michael Carrick simply misunderstood?

Carrick has had a fluctuating career at Man Utd

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.

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Why have Napoli been so successful this season?

To think Napoli would be challenging for the Scudetto at the beginning of the season was laughable. Yet, Walter Mazzarri’s men lie 6 points off leaders AC Milan and remain very much in contention for the Serie A crown. So what exactly is Napoli’s formula for success?

The first and arguably most important point is the formation that they employ. Napoli field an interesting 3-4-2-1 with two wing-backs, and two hybrid wingers/forwards between their striker. With the increase in popularity of lone striker formations, 3 man defences have become something of a rarity (however mainstream success through Chile and now Liverpool could see a resurgence of them). Against 2 striker formations though, they are ideal. The two forwards are picked up by 2 of the centre backs, always leaving a spare man at the back.

The usual Napoli lineup

Napoli press very high up the pitch, and therefore play a high defensive line. The aim of their game is to box the opposition into their own area forcing them to make inaccurate long balls which the defenders pick up. Napoli then attack quickly and directly, sending the ball to their ever present wide-men to play balls into the focal point of the attack, Edinson Cavani. Pressing is one of the most crucial aspects of the modern game, does a team press high up to get the ball back, or do they defend deep and hold their positions? As Johan Cruyff said, “Without the ball you can’t win”, whose Ajax and Holland sides pressed mercilessly to the shock of their opposition. Cruyff’s mantra has been passed down to the current Barcelona side who have staked their claim as arguably the greatest side of all time through technical brilliance, telepathic understanding and fantastic pressing. However, the very same Barcelona were beaten in the Champions League semi-final last year in a historic tie against Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan. After the game, Mourinho boasted “We didn’t want the ball because when Barcelona press and win the ball back, we lose our position – I never want to lose position on the pitch so I didn’t want us to have the ball, we gave it away.” In true Mourinho fashion, this was clearly exaggerated, but he still made a crucial point in the debate between pressing and positioning.

One of the reasons as to why Napoli’s pressing works so well is due to the fact that so many sides in Serie A play so narrow. There is a clear lack of genuine wingers in the Serie A and Napoli have been able to take advantage of this excellently. When Napoli press high, encroaching the opposition in their own half, they often lack an out ball to their wide players, as the centre is often congested. With so many sides playing narrow, this opens the door for Christian Maggio and Andrea Dossena, two marauding wing-backs. The wide areas are often left free giving them both opportunities to run down the wing and put crosses in.

The duo of Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi help the wing-backs acheive this through their movement. They play fascinating roles in that they are neither forwards, wingers or central playmakers. Without the ball, they will press to the wings pinning back the opposition full-backs, reducing the already very little width on offer. When Dossena and Maggio attack the wing, they can move out wide making a 2 v 1 situation against the opposition full-back; or they could cut in centrally drawing out defenders with them, opening up space for the wing-back to cross the ball in.

Playing so high up the pitch and offering so many players forwards have its consequences. It should leave Napoli very open and susceptible to counter attacks. However, this is where Michele Pazienza comes in. He drops deeper, and effectively sweeps up any attacks. His midfield partner Walter Gargano attempts to break up play higher up the pitch, while he stays back and covers the area behind.

As a side, Napoli attack and defend as a unit. All the players work hard and for the team. Even the excellent forward Cavani will drop deep when possession is lost, and you will often see him tracking a player all the way back into the defensive third of the pitch. Walter Mazzarri has turned a side filled with average players, with the exception of the front three, into title challengers through pressing, width, fluidity and unity. If Napoli continue the way they’ve played until the end of the season, and pick up a bit of luck along the way, we could be looking at the new Serie A champions.

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Marseille 0-0 Man Utd: Fundamental problems with the 4-5-1

Man Utd were held to a draw at the Stade Velodrome in a fairly disappointing encounter. Neither side had any real chances in a dull affair. There were however interesting tactical points to take from the game.

Utd went for a 4-5-1 formation, deploying Rooney on the left and Berbatov as a lone forward. There were major problems with the set up though. Gibson and Fletcher were placed high up the pitch, utilising their energy to press Marseille high up and control the midfield. This created plenty of space for Carrick which was seemingly ideal. The knock on effect of it though was that Carrick had very few options when on the ball. Often he had to try awkward passes which lacked accuracy. Nani therefore dropped deeper to receive the ball, and struggled to test the Marseille back line. When Nani did threaten he was very close to the penalty area, running at the back four, so this was far from ideal.

The fullbacks, John O’Shea and Patrice Evra, could’ve been more adventurous and offered more support to Carrick but the problem was of the threat of the Marseille wingers, Loic Remy and Andre Ayew, who were very sharp all game and offered Marseille’s best attacking chances.

Paul Scholes was introduced to replace Darren Gibson, who had played his part quite well. This led to Utd changing to a 4-4-2 with Fletcher on the right and Nani on the left. Man Utd had much more fluidity in offence – partly due to the tactical change, and partly due to the individual play of Scholes. The change had come late on though and Utd were unable to press on and get a goal.

A tough 90 minutes await for Man Utd as they look to continue on to the next round.

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A tribute to Ronaldo, the real Ronaldo

The image, almost iconic, encapsulates the essence of Ronaldo. Pace, power, vision and resilience.

It’s difficult to describe in words just how good Ronaldo was, but I’ll give it a go. The perfect blend of pace, power, technique and predator-like instinct; Ronaldo reigned above all other strikers of his era. Scoring goals came as naturally as breathing to him.

The other Brazilian predator, Romaria, advised Ronaldo to move to Europe at the tender age of 17, after he travelled to the 1994 World Cup but did not play. In his first season, he amassed an incredible 30 goals in the Eredivise, taking the league by storm. However at just 18, he suffered a knee injury that would haunt him throughout his career. For most players this would be devastating, not only physically but also mentally. His whole career was nearly threatened.

He continued though, soldiered on, and got better and better. His goalscoring prowess attracted the likes of Barcelona and he got his big money switch to the Catalan club. Surely a settling period was needed? Not for Ronaldo. He scored a ridiculous 47 goals in 49 games in his first season. He was merely 20 when he won the FIFA World Player of the Year accolade.

After long-winded contract negotiations, Ronaldo became fed up, and did the honourable thing of buying out his contract. He moved on to Italy, finding a home at Inter. Ronaldo was tearing up teams all over Europe. He was scoring, he was assisting, he could do everything. He was complete. Another year, another award. Surely nothing could stop him?

It was time for the 98 World Cup. Romario had to miss out due to injury, and Ronaldo was the headline act. He led from the front, and took his country to the World Cup final. His health took a turn for the worse, a recurring theme in his career, and suffered a fit before the game. He was supposedly forced to continue and was clearly not in the same frame of mind. France deservedly beat Brazil in the final and Zidane made his name, but it should’ve been Ronaldo.

A year later, and his knee forced him off the field once again. The rest of his time at Inter was injury plagued. 7 minutes into his return, he was taken off again. He had to have surgery again. Months before the 2002 World Cup, it was unlikely that he’d be fit to make the plane. Ronaldo was resilient though. He loved the game, and had to play. He recovered, came back, and the stage was set for him. 4 years before his body got the better of him, but this wasn’t going to happen this time. In a side filled with stars such as Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, Roberto Carlos, Cafu and more, Ronaldo over-shadowed them all. Another game, another goal, and he went on to lift the most prestigious trophy in football.

I could go on describing Ronaldo’s career but you could get this information anywhere. The point of this piece is to acknowledge the genius that was Ronaldo. His fitness deteriorated but unlike Ronaldinho, who could only blame his party lifestyle, Ronaldo suffered from hypothyroidism. To think that despite just a failing body, Ronaldo could go on so long is testament to the great man. He loved the game more than anything else, and that was his fuel, that’s what kept him going.

When he got the ball, you knew what was going to happen, yet no one could stop him – he was the first unplayable player I’ve ever seen, and this was after 3 horrendous knee injuries in 2002. At his peak the most unstoppable player in the world and the greatest out-and-out striker of all time. Off the field he was a gentleman. Despite his supposed scandals, he treated people with respect and that was reciprocated.

Massimo Moratti said “Ronaldo was the most powerful centre forward in history. It was an honour to have him at Inter at the pinnacle of his career.”

“Can anybody, anywhere, show me a better player?” said Sir Bobby Robson.

“When the ball is at Ronaldo’s feet it’s like the team has already scored half a goal.” Jairzinho exclaimed.

In his late thirties, Ronaldo was noticeably unfit. On the outside he looked like just another guy if you saw him walking down the street. Yet if you gave him the ball, he would still run rings around 11 twenty year old wonderkids. He didn’t let fame blind him, he didn’t go off the path, he played football to play football, a true legend. You could look at all the stats you like, which for the record are incredible, but Ronaldo’s ability is not something you could quantify. It was just there and you had to see it to appreciate him. He was Ronaldo, the real Ronaldo, and always will be the real Ronaldo.

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Germany 1-1 Italy: Löw’s men start well but fade out

An entertaining game in Dortmund ended 1-1, as Giuseppe Rossi came off the bench to cancel out Miroslav Klose’s early goal. Germany played a full strength side, rather than using it as an opportunity to give new players a chance, but did however slightly alter their system. Cesare Prandelli handed Thiago Motta his National debut in a diamond midfield.

Italy played an interesting system with a diamond consisting of Mauri, Montolivo, De Rossi and Motta; and had Cassano is a free role off of Pazzini. Offensively Italy struggled to create much, and relied heavily on individual flair rather than collective play. Italy’s midfielders seemingly had very undefined roles. While all of them are well rounded players, none of them seemed to have set roles. Thiago Motta was the deepest of all the midfielders, but it should be noted that he is not an out-and-out defensive midfielder.

Antonio Cassano was reunited with his former strike partner Giampaolo Pazzini at the top of the field. Cassano and Pazzini formed a fantastic partnership at Sampdoria, becoming the best 9/10 combination in the league. Here Pazzini played as a traditional forward, whilst Cassano played off of him in a free role. Cassano generally played on the left hand side but drifted from flank to flank.

Germany went with their normal 4-2-3-1 formation with Khedira and Schweinsteiger playing as double pivots. The side was very much their full strength team and Germany were clearly playing to win, rather than experiment with their side.

How they lined up

Germany started off the better team, with Italy struggling to retain possession. Montolivo was largely at fault here as his passes continually went astray. Mauri also struggled, playing a strange role which consisted of him playing high up the pitch but not really as a playmaker. Klose opened the scoring for Germany, improving his already outstanding goalscoring record for his country, but the movement and understanding of the German players has to be outlined. Ozil worked space for Muller to drive into and eventually set up Klose.

Ozil draws out the defender and making lots of space for Muller to run into

The German side showed amazing understanding and awareness of team mates and space around them. Klose and Ozil in particular were outstanding in this area. Despite playing against a congested diamond midfield, Ozil continually found space to work in.

Ozil finds space in a congested midfield

Ozil plays a defence-splitting pass to Klose who made an excellent run, and should've scored

At the World Cup, whilst coating their style with visually aesthetic football, Germany played reactive football. They relied on their opposition to get forward in numbers before mercilessly hitting them on the counter. Here they took a slightly different approach. They carefully brought the ball forward, bringing more men forward and taking the initiative in attacking. This showed good flexibility from Joachim Löw as Italy rarely threatened with numbers and as a unit, so counter-attacking would’ve been very difficult.

Despite a very positive start, Germany lost their initial momentum and looked very jaded as the game wore on. This brought Italy back into the game and through Aquilani and Rossi started playing much better and eventually scored. Aquilani passed the ball around very well in a calm manner, as opposed to Montolivo who looked panicky whilst on the ball. Rossi’s introduction added spark to the side and Italy looked much more likely to score.

Rossi scored the equaliser late on and the game ended 1-1. Germany started very well but weren’t able to continue it on throughout the whole game. This gave Italy a window of opportunity, which Rossi eventually took. The thought of having Rossi merely on the bench seems baffling but having him as an option whilst others start to tire is a very good one.

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Chelsea 0-1 Liverpool: Dalglish gets it right tactically

Liverpool leave Stamford Bridge with 3 well deserved points. Carlo Ancelotti’s hesistancy to change things has probably cost his side any chance of the title.

Both sides were very interesting from a tactical perspective. Chelsea accomodated for new signing Fernando Torres by employing a diamond formation, as they did against Sunderland. Liverpool lined up with a 3-5-1-1 as they first experimented with in the win against Stoke. Lucas played the deepest of the midfielders, specifically tracking Nicolas Anelka. This meant that Liverpool were also, in effect, playing a diamond in midfield.

The ramifications of both sides playing diamonds was that the middle was very congested. Both sides struggled for space, and Nicolas Anelka had a horrid time. Against Sunderland, Anelka had plenty of space to work in and played well. However, today was a different story as Lucas tracked him excellently in an already congested midfield.

The wingbacks were therefore going to pivotal to any success. Both sides had great opportunities due to this. A long ball from Lampard found Ashley Cole in the box, but the cross in wasn’t good enough. Liverpool’s chance which eventually fell to Maxi came from Chelsea being very narrow, allowing Liverpool space on the left flank. Liverpool were the better team in the first half as they utilised their wingbacks much better than Chelsea. Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly were much more forward-thinking than Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa.

Liverpool were also much sharper on the ball than Chelsea. As Ray Wilkins pointed out at half time, Chelsea were taking too long with the ball and lacked rhythm. Liverpool’s fluidity gave them the advantage in the first half.

How they lined up in the first half

Liverpool continued to be the better side in the second half, and deservedly took the lead, albeit from terribly un-organised defending. However one thing to note is the run from deep from Raul Meireles. Meireles’ whole game has changed under Kenny Dalglish. Under Roy Hodgson he was either employed in a strict 2 man midfield, or had the whole creative burden as the playmaker. Under Dalglish he has been given licence to get forward but is not the sole playmaker. His game is not too dissimilar to that of Frank Lampard, in that he passes quickly and makes runs from deep into the box.

When Kalou came on, Chelsea changed to a 4-3-3 with Anelka on the left and Kalou on the right. This change was necessary but it seemingly came too late. Bosingwa and Cole weren’t playing effectively enough and giving Chelsea the width. Liverpool were in their stride at that point and didn’t look like conceding. They defended excellently and resolutely, with the likes of Lucas giving fantastic performances (completing 89% of passes, and making 5 interceptions).

Chelsea brought on Malouda and Luiz in the last rolls of their dice, but Liverpool were too organised to break down. Liverpool switched to a 5 man defence and gave a brilliant defensive performance, and ended deserved winners. Kenny Dalglish got his tactics spot on and Liverpool deserved the 3 points. Carlo Ancelotti however failed to make the necessary changes quick enough and paid the price for it.

How Chelsea lined up with their substitutions

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How will Liverpool lineup with their new signings?

Having signed Suarez and Carroll, the natural response would be to return to a 4-4-2. Both would work well together – the duo possessing a mixture of work rate, dribbling, and directness. The really have that bite (sorry couldn’t resist!). However that would mean scrapping the 3 man central midfield that has worked so well in recent games. Meireles has been thriving in the 3 man midfield having been given license to make runs from deep (ala Lampard) but not being the between-the-lines creator. Lucas has come on leaps and bounds this year and really shows great reading of the game. Gerrard is ofcourse Gerrard and undroppable.

Playing a 4-4-2 would probably mean dropping Lucas and in effect, lessening both Meireles and Gerrard’s attacking drive. Gerrard can no doubt do a good job in a 2 man midfield but this doesn’t play to his strengths. Being given license as the furthest forward player best suits his drive and attacking instinct.

Another option is the 4-2-3-1. Carroll would be the direct link at top with Suarez and most probably Kuyt or Maxi flanking him. Gerrard would have the licence to attack, Meireles can make runs from deep behind with Lucas reading the game from further back. On paper this seems the best idea but Suarez isn’t that kind of player. Playing out wide in a 4-2-3-1 is very different to that of a 4-3-3. Suarez likes to run the channels and in a 4-2-3-1 he would not be given such a role.

A 4-3-3/lopsided 4-4-2 therefore seems the only option. Suarez would play further up than a defensive winger like Kuyt or Maxi, on the other flank. Suarez would be able to link up with Carroll giving an interesting partnership, not too dissimilar to City’s new Dzeko/Tevez partnership. The promising 3 man midfield would not be removed and it all makes sense, offensively. However the problems arise defensively.

With their current 4-3-3, there have been many gaps left in the defensive phase. Against Blackpool their midfield was over-ran completely. Against Everton there were also problems. Ofcourse against Everton they were without Gerrard, and it’s a new formation which takes time to adjust to. A possible solution to leaving too many gaps in front of the defence would be to play a higher defensive and leave little space between attack and defence. This is difficult though as Carragher lacks the pace, which was clearly evident towards the end of Benitez’ tenure, to play such a high line. Benitez very much favoured a high line, as part of his pressing game, so the majority of players are used to such a strategy, and Pepe Reina made his name as the best sweeper-keeper in the world.

On the left hand side Suarez would be placed high up the pitch, unlikely to track back much. This wouldn’t be out of lazyness, but rather his natural game is to stay high up. Fabio Capello has been quoted as saying that in the modern game you can only play “9-1″, and that no more than 1 player can be afforded the licence of not defending strictly.

Playing Suarez high up the pitch can have its strengths though. It means that the opposition fullback would be pinned back and not able to get forward. Against Chelsea if they use this strategy they could nulify Bosingwa, and leave them completely disjointed. Problems arise in transition. As we’ve seen with Man City, when they played either Dzeko or Tevez on the left, moving from defence to attack is very difficult and this can leave the team effectively “broken”. However Kenny Dalglish has played Glen Johnson, a naturally attacking fullback, on the left meaning that there would be better transition in switching of play. This could mean that the left side is too attacking though. One thing is for certain, there are many options available to Kenny Dalglish

Possible formation highlighting Meireles' runs from deep, Suarez' high placement, the difference in the two fullbacks and Kuyt as a defensive winger.

A high defensive line could solve Liverpool's defensive problems, but can Carragher handle it?

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