A couple of years ago, sat in the Stretford End watching United versus Tottenham Hotspur, I decided to do something I’d not done since the days of wanting to emulate Eric Cantona or idolising Paul Ince- he was actually my favourite until he left- I dedicated almost an entire game of football to watching one player.
I know it sounds obsessive and somewhat strange and please believe me I don’t make a habit of it, but I thought I’d watch a player I still hadn’t fully made my mind up on, despite him being one of our most successful ever. When I say “dedicated almost and entire game” that’s exactly what I mean, studying him off the ball as well as on, even when he wasn’t in possession, I’d carefully watch his every move. Of course there were times when the action naturally dragged my attention away, no matter how hard I tried to concentrate but by and large I spent a good chunk of United’s 2-0 observing a certain Michael Carrick.
What caused my madness? It was simple, no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t make my mind up about him. In his first season, I thought he was very good, without being great enough to make me forget about Keano- hardly a criticism given the former skippers unreal ability. In his second season, I preferred Owen Hargreaves but warmed slightly to Carrick’s superior range of passing, which seemed most evident in the 4-0 demolition of Arsenal in the FA Cup at Old Trafford where he gave the greatest Paul Scholes impression I’ve ever witnessed and a pass for Nani’s goal which is still one the best I’ve EVER seen. In 2008/09 however, he seemed to be overshadowed by Darren Fletcher and was one of the players I found myself less enthusiastic about, while in 2009/10, games against Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Wolves away produced lacksidasical passes which proved either costly or nearly so.
Only a few weeks prior to the loss to Bayern, after United’s Carling Cup win over City at Old Trafford I wrote: Following United’s epic victory over noisy neighbours City on Wednesday, Wayne Rooney’s brilliance was once again hailed by all and rightly so. Rooney though, your ever-typical humble scouser was quick to divert the attention to ‘Super’ Darren Fletcher, exclaiming, rather romantically that he wouldn’t swap him for anyone in the world. While that sentiment may not be entirely true there’s no doubt that Fletcher has become something of a hero at Old Trafford of late, a big game player who’s willingness to get stuck in and cover every blade of grass has seen his stock rise meteorically.
Going on to later add:
Fletcher, Hargreaves and even Anderson have all enjoyed hearing their names sung around Old Trafford a lot more than Carrick. It appears he may have suffered with comparisons to some of his more physical teammates. Hargreaves, before his injuries obviously, was one of the most fearless players to don a United shirt since Roy Keane left, his energy also seemed to galvanise the team. Anderson’s faults were excused by his youth, and his efforts received some would argue, slightly more praise than they’ve really warranted. Fletcher is now United’s midfield golden boy after years of uncertainty as to whether he was good enough. All three players possess a certain aggressive ‘get stuck in’ nature that fans warm to more than the controlled creator that Carrick embodies.
Carrick has been criticised for everything from not being an England regular- never seemed to bother Steve Bruce- to not scoring enough goals-a criticism even Beckham used to receive at one point- to going missing when the team is struggling- although surely he’s not alone if the ‘team’ are struggling. It seems many can forget or simply ignore the fact that Carrick is one of the best passers of the ball not only at Old Trafford but anywhere in the Premiership and can often dictate the pace of a game, which comes in particularly useful when your defending a narrow lead against an aggressive team and need someone to take the sting out of it.
Yet towards the end of the season I found myself noting:
Following the Champions League exit many fans, experts, pundits and Jim Beglin were quick to point out that Carrick was at fault for both Bayern Munich’s first two goals at Old Trafford. While the sending off of Rafael Da Silva was seen as the major reason for United’s failure, Carrick was arguably more to blame than the young Brazilian. The midfielder’s failure to deal with the danger for the first ball and get out-muscled far too easily, then lose possession dilly-dallying which led to the second, was almost inexcusable as unlike his poorly disciplined colleague, he wasn’t young and inexperienced.
Going into the Bayern game Carrick was coming off the back of a rather poor display against Liverpool in the league. It was his lack of composure, some may even call it dilly-dallying that had led to Fernando Torres’s opener. That would have turned almost every United fan who’s at times questioned Carrick’s real value, totally against the Geordie if it weren’t for the fact that Ji-Sung Park and Wayne Rooney turned the game on its head.
Carrick hasn’t just underperformed in those games, going back a few weeks further to Wolves away, in the final few moments of the match a poor clearance by him had almost led to an equalizer for the midlands team. If it was not for Sam Vokes’s woefulness in front of goal then United would have dropped two valuable points and now be out of the title race.
It seems at a time when United need a man who has won the title every season he’s been at Old Trafford to step up, he’s suddenly started to fall to pieces. Saturday’s game against Spurs was a case in point. When Carrick replaced Antonio Valencia on the hour mark, the bloke in the seat next to me turned and said: “I hope he’s not gonna throw this away,” two minutes later Ledley King rose above him, without much difficulty and headed in an equaliser.
The fact that Sir Alex Ferguson dropped Carrick for both the recent derby and the Spurs game tells us that the midfielder’s lack of form has not gone unnoticed by the United boss. It’s almost as if with the World Cup only weeks from now and United a Chelsea slip-up away from the title, Carrick has decided he neither wants a trip to South Africa or any more medals cluttering up his mantelpiece.
This was the reason for me studying Carrick so intently, that game against Spurs, I wanted to see what he was really, truly about as despite watching every game he’d ever played in a United shirt, I was still none the wiser. I left the ground that day, knowing that despite Darren Fletcher having a “stormer” and Nani handling the ball, causing some controversy for our second goal, Carrick did the exact job asked of him.
The point was/is Carrick plays better with someone who can do the nitty gritty alongside him, be that Owen Hargreaves, Darren Fletcher or whoever, but for the last two seasons has had to do that job himself.
Carrick has played alongside Giggs, Scholes and occasionally Jones and for me was at his best when Jones was by his side, as it freed him up of the ‘tackling’ duties now expected of him. Many will scoff at that claim, arguing the Scholes/Carrick partnership has undoubtedly shone brightest, but is there really the legs, or steel in there for real midfield ‘battles’?
Carrick’s situation reminds me somewhat of Andy Cole, in the fact that we bought a player who could do one thing very well- score goals- and then expected him to do more than that- holding the ball up, linking up with others etc.
Cole adapted his game to become a legend at United, Carrick, has subtly adapted his to be more defensive, but is still far from a traditional ‘DM’ – he’s more of a midfielder ‘sweeper’ type.
With Scholes’ surely destined to play less games next season, it may be time to finally get the very best out of Carrick, by giving him the help he needs and that could well come in the shape of a regular partnership with Phil Jones. Thething that’s missing from Carrick, isn’t anything to do with his ability or style of play, it’s a partner to bring out the best in him.