Much like Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Carrick is a player that seems to divide opinion amongst the United faithful. Ask many fans for their opinion of the midfielder, and the first response you will probably receive is “big-game bottler”, a reputation that was firmly cemented for Carrick following his performance against Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final.
Such criticism is harsh though, any good United fan will tell you that things could have been different in that final were it not for the ridiculously cruel suspension of Darren Fletcher, who would have been able to press the Barcelona midfield and free Carrick up for more creative duties. As Henry Winter pointed out in his post match analysis:
“His [Ferguson’s] decision to start Ryan Giggs in the hole behind Cristiano Ronaldo in a 4-2-3-1 formation backfired badly, managing the remarkable double of somehow leaving Ronaldo isolated and Michael Carrick and Anderson badly exposed. In a long season, this was a game too far for Giggs, who was constantly bypassed. A 4-3-3 approach, which most observers had expected, would have brought more security to midfield.”
Carrick has yet to play in either of United’s first two league games this season, remaining an unused substitute for both, despite putting in a good performance against Chelsea (a rather big game) in the Community Shield. This can attributed to the fact that United have played 4-4-2 in both league games this season, with the team being based around Paul Scholes due to his renaissance of playing as a deep-lying playmaker, a role akin to that played by Xavi for Spain and Barcelona.
But United have only been able to play 4-4-2 (a seemingly increasingly outdated formation) and get away with it because both Newcastle and Fulham have played a similar formation with little tactical variation, although it’s interesting to note that United struggled more with Fulham, who played a formation that was closer to 4-3-3 than Newcastle’s. Perhaps we didn’t play 4-3-3 against Fulham because our only player who is a proven lone striker, Wayne Rooney, was out injured. Who knows?
But as Liverpool showed against the Stockport’s on Monday night, and England showed against Germany in the World Cup, 4-4-2 often falls short against the modern 4-3-3/4-5-1 as the other team are able to dominate the midfield and dictate the game. As Jonathan Wilson pointed out a while back, this has been brought about by the 2005 variations in the offside rule, which:
“Stop sides playing the offside trap and they defend deeper, that central band, the effective playing area, expands (hence the widespread shift from three-band formations to four-band formations), and the result is that the size of players matters less and skill is one again prospering.”
Which helps explain why Giggs-Scholes-Keane-Beckham (which rolls off the tongue so beautifully) were able to dominate midfields in the late 90’s/early 00’s.
So one can’t help but feel that in the big games, such as away games in Europe, United will opt for a 4-3-3/4-5-1, with Carrick playing a crucial role alongside our two “runners”, Fletcher and Park. For as Zonal Marking have purported, the modern day central midfielder is more complete, we are seeing less of the ‘Makelele role’ because of:
“…the decline in the use of classic number 10s. We’re seeing less of players in the Zinedine Zidane and Manuel Rui Costa mould, and more like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi – who are capable of playing centrally, but generally start from wide roles. Without a designated central playmaker to stop, managers are less insistent on fielding a ‘tackler’ deep in midfield to stop him, and we have fewer simple ‘creator v destroyer’ battles.”
As the article also point out:
“… [football is] now more than ever before based around short, quick passing in the final third. Therefore, intercepting is the new tackling. It’s not as spectacular, not as obvious, it won’t get the supporters on their feet (nowhere traditionally cheers a crunching tackle as much as English football terraces), but it’s just as useful.”
And there are few better at this than Carrick, who is able to achieve such a feat due to his positional intelligence. And this is as well as being a fine passer of the ball. Such attributes that Carrick possesses will be particularly important in times to come because, as Sir Alex himself pointed out:
“The idea behind the 4-5-1 is that you can control the midfield and keep possession of the ball – that’s always your aim when you use that formation. I believe the team that has possession of the ball has more opportunities to win the match. As for the 4-4-2, there is more emphasis in that formation placed on playing the ball forward and usually you use the two traditional wingers.”
Just look at Spain with their “tiki-taka” strategy, it is merely defence through possession than tires out the opposition, requiring great technique and patience. And as the success of Spain and Barcelona has shown in recent years, it works, and these are teams who play 2-3 players of the Carrick/Xavi mould in the same line-up. As Left Back In The Changing Room explains so well:
“Whilst it may seem strange to compare Carrick to Xavi, this is what Carrick’s role is (or should be) at United. Carrick isn’t supposed to be a box-to-box midfielder. He isn’t supposed to be a Makelele. He is supposed to be a Xavi. A man who doesn’t run with the ball or take men on. His job is to keep possession and orchestrate possession. His job is to float in the gaps, playing little out-balls, moving into space, always offering a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Incidentally, Carrick can’t do this as well as Scholes, but he isn’t as bad as they make out”
Carrick joins a long line of technically and tactically proficient players who are vastly underrated in England, such as Berbatov and Veron, because of our attitude to football and intellect as a whole. Whilst Carrick is currently being out-shone by Paul Scholes, who is the ultimate passer in a destroyer-passer-creator midfield combo, do not underestimate the ability of Michael Carrick nor his potential contribution and importance to the United squad over the coming long, arduous season.
Will Carrick shine again?