The importance of being Carrick

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).

Carrick-ter (sorry)

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)

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4 Responses to “The importance of being Carrick”

  1. Berry
    March 22, 2011 at 1:01 pm #

    I could not disagree with this more, Carrick has played within himself for the last two seasons, and his displays in the Champions league at the end of last season were dreadful and although you cant single him out alone he certainly would have to brunt a lot of the blame for our exit.

    A player that marks the opposition while we are in possession of the ball so that he can receive a pass and then would rather dictate to centre backs where to play passes instead of dropping back to pick the ball up and make something happen himself?!? He has been passing the buck for a long time in that number 16 shirt now.

    Every so often he plays a game where he displays the character that we were willing to pay £18 million for to spurs, but those games are few and far between and there are better players out there far hungrier for a chance to play weekly and be a ‘great’ player at Old Trafford.

    • Lennyman
      March 22, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

      Couldn’t agree more with the first comment. Carrick has been more than a passenger these past three years. Such is his lack of confidence that he rarely bothers to make forward passes any more. Think I;m joking? I was at the Marseille game the other night and counted two simple forward passes all night and neither of them completed.
      Carrick had his moments in the past but let’s face it, he was playing alongside some world class midfieilders in the shape of Scholes, ROnaldo and Co.
      Carrick alone shouldn’t be blamed for our decline but he still falls well short of United standards. Get rid and show some ambition or we will become an also ran in European football.
      The standards in the Premier League are poor and if it wasn’t for Chelsea imploding or Arsenal not having a defence we’d be out of the race by now. If we do win it (which is still very much on the line) this will be the worst United side to win a title.
      Time to give us doubters what for Sir Alex and get the cheque book out this summer.

  2. Paul Stoller
    March 22, 2011 at 1:11 pm #

    Carrick has been targeted, I think, as a symbol of Utd’s lack of world greatness particularly in midfield.

    “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.”

    It’s this anonymity that Carrick projects, he has no particularly successful style, which is emblematic of recent Utd performances. Scrappy victories with few standout performances and a squad disproportionately full of subpar fringe players.

    Saying that, no one can dispute their continued success. The league speaks for itself.

  3. Jonathan F
    March 22, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    Thanks for reading and for your comment Berry. I’m slightly conflicted when it comes to Carrick, in that while I agree with you he has been playing within himself for much of the last two seasons, as I’ve stated above I also feel he still has a role to play at the club.

    Perhaps that lack of a bustling / creative midfielder this season has led to increased scrutiny and therefore criticism of Carrick. So people blame him for the player he isn’t rather than appreciate him for the player he is.

    I’d definitely say that he needs to improve based on performances this season. But I also think the Marseille game just gave a good glimpse of his role and what he can offer to the team, at a time when he appears to be copping a lot of flak.