Michael Carrick is a much-maligned figure at Manchester United these days. Football fans always have at least one silently nominated yet widely acknowledged fall guy, and at Old Trafford this season that honour appears to have been bestowed upon the quiet Geordie number 16.
The criticisms are that Carrick is neither a Michael Essien-style tough-tackler nor can he skip past a man or two and ping the ball in from 25 yards like Wesley Sneijder.
True, by and large. But though ‘Carrick 16′ shirts may not be flying out of the megastore in droves this season, many of the underlying reasons for criticising the England international are unfair and often suggest a lack of understanding of his role in the team. A snarling, marauding driving force in midfield Carrick ain’t – unlike the previous man to wear 16 at Old Trafford. Generally speaking, English audiences tend to overvalue this type of all-action player – a habit Xavi touched on in a recent interview with The Guardian (Carrick is one of the “technical” players afforded special mention).
United’s recent 2-1 Champions League win over Olympique Marseille proved however that Carrick can still be a valuable asset to Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. The hosts were in a precarious position against Marseille having drawn 0-0 away in the first leg.
Always a dangerous result, it was important for United to retain possession in the home leg and minimise the opportunity for Marseille to launch quick counter attacks, a feature of their game Didier Deschamps’ side do well with the pace and penetration of Andre Ayew and Loic Rémy down either flank, aided by the short and long passing range of Lucho Gonzalez and Benoit Cheyrou.
Ferguson opted for a 4-4-2 to begin, with Wayne Rooney often falling deep to transform the shape to more of a 4-2-3-1 – Javier Hernandez the lone man upfront and Ryan Giggs and Nani out wide. In either setup, retention of possession from the two midfielders was vital to United’s success and here the importance of Carrick was revealed.
Sitting alongside the ever-masterful Paul Scholes, Carrick’s vision, distribution and passing ability were crucial to United winning the midfield battle and on this score the 29-year-old did not disappoint. Highly influential to the game’s outcome, Carrick covered the most distance of any player in red on the night and boasted the second highest pass completion percentage of any player on the pitch. After Scholes, of course.
Carrick’s true value to United’s play however is seen in the Red Devils’ overall pass distribution on the night. With these statistics we really see just how important Carrick is as the link player between defence, midfield and attack – particularly important on European nights against opposing teams that invariably keep the ball so well.
In terms of pass distribution, United’s most popular passing combinations against Marseille were, in this order:
Scholes to Carrick – Scholes to Wes Brown – Carrick to Scholes – Carrick to Chris Smalling – Carrick to Rooney – Carrick to Patrice Evra.
The only passing combination for Marseille that came close in terms of volume of passes was Rod Fanni to Rémy. Clearly, Carrick’s role in distributing play cannot be overlooked.
Of course little of this is revolutionary statistical analysis. Midfielder completes higher number of passes than player in other position is hardly a scoop likely to get phones ringing at the News of the World.
Neither can one influential game exonerate Carrick from a season largely consisting of him treading water. In 2008/2009, arguably Carrick’s best season of a consistently impressive three-year spell that resulted in three straight Premier League titles and a European Cup, Carrick scored 4 league goals and registered 8 assists. This season both tallies are stuck on zero.
Perhaps Michael Carrick is on the wane. Perhaps he has never quite recovered from a horror show performance in the 2009 Champions League final, when Xavi and Iniesta ran rings around him in Rome. When, on the final day of the 2009/2010 season, Ferguson left Carrick on the bench for the 4-0 win against Stoke City and then elected to bring on Darron Gibson ahead of the England midfielder, I for one thought the sand had run through on the egg timer of Carrick’s Manchester United career.
However, despite a subdued season, performances like the one against Marseille demonstrate that while he may not be a headline-grabbing Roy of the Rovers-type midfielder à la Steven Gerrard or Roy Keane, and while he is not having his best season in a red shirt, Carrick still has an important role to play in Manchester United’s quest for league and cup honours in his own quiet, understated way.
(photo credit: Adib Roy on Flickr)