The international break, despite being the bane of many fans lives, can, nevertheless, on occasion, present a welcome opportunity to take stock and look ahead to the next round of fixtures. For United, West Brom and Palace aside, the forthcoming contests against Chelsea, City and Arsenal will provide the surest test and a proper gauge of the van Gaal ‘revolution’ so far. Although, traditionally billed as title deciders, a slight recalculation, due to the legacy of the Moyes hiatus, may be in order this time around. These games, if not exactly showcasing our title credentials will, nonetheless, go a long way to defining the season and confirming whether Manchester United can return to the lofty heights of the Champions League.
Nominally, tight and cagey affairs, invariably decided by the odd goal or two, suggests the art of defending, more often than not, becomes the deciding factor in separating the game’s heavyweights. As a result, it is no surprise that United’s defensive capabilities, following the summer departures of Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra, have been subject to forensic analysis, with many concluding the unit to be highly suspect, if not an accident waiting to happen. With injuries and youth a prominent feature of United’s ‘makeshift’ defence, it is perhaps prudent to look to the midfield in order to provide the defensive solidity necessary to win such games. It is easy to forget, after a glut of summer signings, the integral position Michael Carrick has held in the United midfield for a number of years. Injured during pre-season, the return of Carrick to fitness, to potentially form a formidable defensive screen with Daley Blind, is perhaps a timely boost as Chelsea and City loom large.
Subject to a welter of criticism from fans last season, but then who wasn’t, Carrick’s absence from first team duties this season has elicited, in the most part, something approaching indifference. Seen as little more than the occasional bit part player, for the ‘lesser’ games, by fans wishing to see the Blind, di Maria, Herrera triumvirate remain intact. The figure of Carrick, nonetheless, may be the reason van Gaal’s failed attempts to further strengthen the midfield, could be viewed as less than the catastrophe many assume. A veteran of five league triumphs and one Champions League, Carrick has seen and done it all in his time at Manchester United. An astute reader of the game who, rather than relying on a crunching tackle or a burst of speed, instead, relies on his positional sense, tactical acumen and big match experience to help tip high pressure games in United’s favour. Games against the top sides are won by fine margins and possessing a disciplined defensive screen detailed to sit in front of the back four, allowing United’s front men licence to attack, will only serve to improve those margins.
Likely to compete against the muscle of Matic and Toure and the inventiveness of Fabregas and Silva for midfield dominance, the lone figure of Blind cannot possibly be expected to dam those particular floods. In fact, employing an extra body, in the centre of the park, may help to compensate for Blind’s slight tendency to be knocked off the ball a little too easily. Perhaps, the Dutchman would benefit from being assigned the De Gea diet; however, until its effects can be felt it would be wise, as well as educational, for Blind to have the reassuring and experienced Carrick by his side in the games that really matter. Carrick’s footballing brain, disciplined nature and range of passing, married to Blind’s willingness to plug gaps, is an ideal platform from which counter attacks could be sprung by utilising the incisive di Maria and the improving Falcao. While it is true to suggest that Herrera, when required, can play a more holding role, providing a degree of combativeness and energy to compliment Blind. It has become clear, as the season has progressed, that Herrera is better employed in a more advanced role, as his goal scoring contribution and link-up play amply demonstrates. Moreover, as Bryan Robson and a host of others have pointed out, Carrick is the type of player who ‘reads the game and intercepts the ball really well’. Obvious but essential qualities needed to counteract the threat posed by the fearsome attacks of Chelsea and City.
Whatever choice of formation or personnel van Gaal opts for against Chelsea, City and Arsenal; one name that should be first on the team sheet is that of Michael Carrick. As last season demonstrated, the lack of a strong core to United’s midfield was exposed and exploited, at times gleefully, by opposing teams. The importance of retaining a tight, disciplined formation, in games of this nature cannot be overemphasised. Therefore, the presence of Carrick, alongside Blind, could prove crucial to United’s chances against the champions and champions elect. In short, defending, as history proves, wins you matches, trophies and titles.