Manchester United’s Japan leg of the pre-season tour ended on a sour note, all be it pre-season and mainly about fitness we take a look into how important Michael Carrick is to United’s midfield.
After slumping to a 3-2 loss in their opening tie against Yokohama F. Marinos, the Red Devils failed to produce the required goods versus Cerezo Osaka, mustering an unsatisfying 2-2 draw.
United’s talismanic midfielder Michael Carrick missed both the games, owing to a groin injury and we analyse why the Englishman is presently the most important player at Old Trafford.
Passing and Ammunition to the Attackers
In the absence of Carrick, David Moyes utilized the pairings of Tom Cleverley and Anderson (Yokohama) and Ryan Giggs and Phil Jones (Osaka) in midfield.
None of the four midfielders could dictate the centre of the park in the same mould as Carrick.
Against Yokohama, because of the pressing and compact structure of the hosts, Anderson and Cleverley lacked ideas to pass the ball to the attackers. They looked uncomfortable, couldn’t provide the attacking penetration and lost possession on several occasions. Consequently, Jesse Lingard, Wilfried Zaha, Adnan Januzaj and Robin van Persie got very little ammunition.
While, against Osaka, although Giggs played a wide range diagonal and vertical passes, the Welshman couldn’t do so on a continual basis.
Simply put, without Carrick, United struggled to link the defence with their attack. There was no one to pass the ball in between the lines vertically or horizontally, to the attackers. And to form this missing nexus, Moyes ordered his attackers to drop very deep against Osaka with Shinji Kagawa doing an admirable job in connecting the two ends of the field.
Even during attacking wing overloads, Carrick’s presence was missed.
When United look to outnumber the opposition on the flanks, the 31-year-old facilitates his wing-men by often acting as the “extra” man. He also presents himself as a safe passing outlet, someone who can release one of the attackers into the channels, switch play or recycle the ball.
In his absence, there was no United midfielder to take up this mantle.
Against both Yokohama and Osaka, United’s midfield was overrun as they theoretically had a two-versus-three disadvantage.
So, in both the games, the midfielders were forced to get through a lot of running rather than protecting the back-four solidly.
Moreover, in the Yokohama tie, Cleverley and Anderson were easily drawn out of their respective positions by the movement of their counter-parts. And in the Osaka match, Giggs and Jones showed reluctance to close down spaces in between the lines or track back when the ball was played behind them.
This resulted in massive holes just in front of United’s backline.
Here is where Carrick, in his holding-midfield role, was craved as the 31-year-old simply sits in front of the defence, providing an armour of shield, even when United have less men in midfield.
He is rarely found out of position and more important, intercepts the opposition’s direct passes into the defending third.
The main problem in Japan was not that United were leaving spaces, but that, they were easily allowing their counter-parts to pass into those spaces.
And this was because, there was no assigned holding midfielder, so both the midfielders were running up and down the pitch, trying got mitigate the extra man. But they rarely intercepted the key passes.
When the two United midfielders moved relatively high up the pitch to even mildly press, there was always one player from the opposing team who could get into the space opened up. And the Red Devils’ pressing was so lacklustre that the player who got into that zone could be easily reached via a simple pass.
Carrick, on the other hand, sits in that “zone” in such cases, with his midfield partner moving up to press.
In this way, United don’t leave much space in between the lines (Carrick can still be outnumbered two-versus-one) and when a pass is directed in that area by the teams, Carrick generally intercepts it.
In the first two games, Carrick was the hub of United’s pressing.
He initiated the pressing in the final third by moving out of his holding role to aggressively pressurize the defenders.
In United’s half, the England international occasionally pressed to shift the opposition out wide.
Cleverley and Anderson did press, but were rash and ineffective. On the other hand, Jones didn’t showcased ample mobility and determination and frankly, Giggs can’t do the pressing work.
This meant that:
- With no pressing by United in the final third, Yokohama and Osaka could build up plays from the back.
- Moyes has placed emphasis on pressing in the centre when the opposition enters United’s half to shift them out wide (and then closing them down on the flanks to win the ball). The Red Devils couldn’t do this, which is another reason why Yokohama and Osaka could directly play in between the lines from the centre- there was no one to stop them.
And when United were defending on the flanks, the central midfielders failed to create the crucial defensive wing overloads or press the opposing players. They didn’t narrow down the space and thus, the opposition just got an alternative to break down United.
Earlier Moyes’ troops congested and pressed on the flanks so well with the help of Carrick’s positioning and interception skills, that although they left gaps in this process, the Red Devils ended up winning possession most of the times.
Carrick initiated United’s pressing. Without him, one could say United lacked their “pressing engine”.