Up until a few weeks ago, Michael Carrick’s future at Manchester United looked in serious doubt. With a number of press articles linking him with a move away from Old Trafford – and some, rather embarrassingly, even citing him as a makeweight in potential deals for younger and more mobile midfielders – it seemed as though Sir Alex Ferguson and the United faithful had finally lost patience with the former Spurs midfielder that cost an initial £14million in 2006.
However, after signing a three-year contract extension at the start of March, and turning in a man-of-the-match display against Chelsea in the Champions League quarter finals, United fans are cautiously optimistic that they may finally be about to see the best of the recipient of Roy Keane’s fabled No.16 shirt.
After the crushing Champions league final against Barcelona in 2009, a number of United fans seemed to lose faith in Carrick’s ability to truly shine at the top level. Despite the fact that Darren Fletcher was absent through suspension, many laid the blame for the defeat at his feet, and he become something of a minor scapegoat for fans pointing to the ease with with the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta were able to retain possession while the Englishman was left chasing ghosts.
Carrick himself described it as the worst night of his career, and there were (naturally) unconfirmed rumours that Ferguson may have been considering Carrick’s ability to assert himself and demand a starting place in a team like United’s. A penalty miss against Burnley at the start of 2009 wasn’t helped by Ferguson saying that the miss cost United the game, and Carrick seemed to retreat further into his shell.
While he has been in and out of the team since then through niggling injuries and indifferent performances, over the past few weeks there has been a noticeable change in Carrick’s form. Although his contract extension was greeted by a wave of indifference from fans, Ferguson did happen to mention Carrick by name before the Chelsea tie in terms of his experience, and he repaid Ferguson’s faith by turning in a fantastic performance against the Blues.
With a pass completion rate of 88% and seven interceptions on Wednesday night, Carrick gave a near-faultless display of how to shape a cagey game from the defensive midfield position. Although the highlight of his game was undoubtedly the pinpoint cross-field pass to Ryan Giggs that led to Wayne Rooney’s opener, time and again he stole in and regained possession for United, highlighting the importance of a composed head to nullify the rampaging strength of a counter-attacking Chelsea side.
Ryan Giggs told the club’s website of Carrick’s ability, exclaiming:
“He’s got good feet, he can pass long and short. But he also defends well and screens the back four.”
Herein lies Carrick’s true strength to the team; the likes of Frank Lampard and Ramires were unable to break into the final third with any regularity as Carrick marshalled the area in front of the returning Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. The Serbian centre-back said of Carrick:
“Maybe he’s not the most attractive footballer – he doesn’t often do fancy tricks – but for our team he plays a key role.
“He takes up good positions so the defenders can always pass to him and he defends very well. He’s a top player and has a lot of passion for the game.”
Indeed, it is perhaps the fact that he rarely provides the magic of, say, Rafael van der Vaart that so many fans choose to write off the midfielder. However, while it is often noted that he may struggle in a standard 4-4-2 against more dynamic opponents (such as the 2009 final against Barcelona), one feels that by playing Carrick in the deep role of a 4-5-1 system, Ferguson may finally have found the England midfielder’s true position. He has shown before that he can hit a ball – Roma and Wigan will attest to that – but more often that not Carrick opts for a pass rather than a shot. Despite the disappointment of the fans at his reluctance to impose himself on games more frequently, his more considered, composed nature is precisely the reason why he was able to control the game at Stamford Bridge so emphatically.
The pass for Ryan Giggs aside, it may well be worth considering that while Carrick may not necessarily always provide the killer pass of a Paul Scholes, or the late run and finish of a Frank Lampard, if he is on form, then it is very, very difficult to beat Manchester United. He has started more European games this season than any other United player, which seems to suggest that while Michael Carrick may not win Manchester United too many matches, he’ll certainly stop his team from losing them.