While Sir Alex Ferguson’s rhetoric that Michael Carrick is currently “English football’s best midfielder” was met with condemnation from many quarters, it wouldn’t be overstatement to suggest that the Manchester United man is on a pedestal with the best in terms of importance.
Once regarded as the marmite midfielder of Manchester United, he divided opinion like no other. Nonetheless, United’s most successful period of dominance coincided with Carrick as a midfield mainstay – playing more games in this period than any other player, bar the ever present Patrice Evra.
Unlike many of his country-specific counterparts Carrick isn’t cut from the same cloth. He doesn’t bring boundless energy to the engine room, nor does he dive into tackles or drive forward from midfield in the manner of Gerrard, Lampard et al.
However, he brings balance in abundance, elegance on the ball and the ability to dictate in the democratic state of a football field. With technical ability befitting of the best, the Newcastle natives composure and confidence makes him the ultimate modern day defensive midfielder.
With the club in a constant state of flux, decimated by injuries and unable to find a consistent level of form, Carrick’s return has coincided with a 10 game unbeaten run, in which he has been instrumental.
The celebration of Michael Carrick can be regarded as unprecedented to some, but to those who understand the evolution of contemporary football and the continuing Europeanism of the British game it will merely be a sigh of relief. His ability, and more importantly his significance to the successful functioning of a United team is finally being recognised and subsequently acknowledged.
While seemingly superficial, the fact that the now famous Michael Carrick song can now be heard echoing in full chorus around the four corners of Old Trafford is a testament to how far he has come as a player, or more interestingly how far the average fan has come to understand the modern game. Perhaps a mixture of both is the politically correct assumption.
It must also be noted that the song in question includes a reference to the great Paul Scholes. While this may be frivolous, there is no doubting that the comparison is justified by those who matter most, namely Scholes himself, who previously stated in an interview in 2012 that Carrick is ‘’the Rolls Royce of the team’’, while continuing to exclaim he is ‘’one of the most underrated players in the league’.
Such praise wasn’t always evident however.
So why is it that a player who is so highly valued by his managers highly regarded by teammates and fellow pros, and one who has established himself as the dominant midfielder at one of the most demanding clubs during one of its most successful periods in history been so undervalued?
Two simple facts are proposed. Carrick was signed to replace the enigmatic Roy Keane. The ‘’fighting Irishman’’ who epitomised Sir Alex’s very own never say die attitude. He was bullish, loud, angry and hard. Carrick was given the unenviable task of not just taking over from Keane in the heart of United’s midfield, but also assigned with inheriting the famous no.16 shirt synonymous with the former captain. This inevitably resulted in unfair comparisons of players, who while playing similar positions, were, unequivocally different in their respective styles of play. The level of expectation on Carrick, to replace perhaps the most influential player in the clubs history, ensured that a spotlight was cast on every detail of his respective performances.
Carrick was bought to replace Roy Keane positionally, but based on the monumental differences between them with regards to personality and playing style there was always going to be a significant level of change and perhaps fans were not ready to embrace such change. As Scholes puts it ‘’Michael is a different breed to the likes of Nicky Butt and Roy Keane…they were brilliant, but so is Michael in a different way’’.
However, the lack of correlation between styles of play and personality inevitably brought about criticisms of Carrick. After all, Keane’s stock had risen so high that he was now regarded as one of the clubs greatest ever players, his name was often accompanied by those of Edwards, Best, Law and Charlton. This fundamental change in playing style leads me on to my second point.
While being patriotically Irish, Keane was ironically your quintessential British midfielder – brash, in your face and temperamental. He was a box to box player synonymous with tough tackling and an all action style of play. Carrick, on the other hand is less assertive, quiet and assuming in personality, but also distinctively different in relation to footballing attributes. His main job is to sit in front of the back four, shield them from opposing attacks and subsequently dictate the tempo of the game. Ultimately, Carrick is tasked with keeping possession and making those around him play, a task he is very good at according to Xabi Alonso…’’Michael Carrick is a player who makes those around him play, regardless of the fact that maybe he is not the player that shines the most individually’’.
His range of passing is unparalleled and he is equally adept with both feet. He always makes himself available for the ball thus showing profound courage and responsibility allowing him to quietly and unassumingly dictate the tempo of the game. Essentially he keeps it simple, perhaps a core reason why he is so underrated, however, as Da Vinci once proclaimed ‘’simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’’
Football in general has evolved and only recently has the Premier League embraced this evolutionary shift. The increasing influx of foreign players and coaches has contributed to the necessary acceptance of a more technical and tactical view of the game. What is perhaps most evident about the modern game is that there has been an unprecedented decrease in the relevance of ‘’terrier like’’ midfielders such as Gattuso and Keane, the likes of whom were so well revered a decade ago.
Instead the more astute, calm, controlled and technical abilities of deep-lying playmakers are heralded and quite often act as the fundamental backbone upon which successful teams are built. Busquets of Barcelona, Pirlo of Juventus and Kroos of Real Madrid are prime examples of how defensive midfielders need not be brash and hard, but instead technical ability and passing competencies are the critical attributes.
The general consensus since his arrival in the summer of 2006 is one of horizontal opinion, ranging from those who believe he is perhaps the most misunderstood midfielder of the modern Premier League era, to those who short-sightingly see him as ‘’too slow’’, ‘unimposing’’ and ultimately ineffective. However, opinion has monumentally shifted to the former; his undoubted ability is no longer questioned, nor merely accepted but deservedly celebrated.
Van Gaal seemingly shares a similar thought process to that of Sir Alex when it comes to the significance of Carrick. Recently he installed the midfield lynchpin as his vice-captain, whilst professing that he is “irreplaceable”. Further evidence of the fundamental role Carrick plays for United can be witnessed by the fact that he was rested for the trip to Yeovil, seemingly with one eye on Southampton on Sunday.
Universally under-appreciated the midfield metronome that is Michael Carrick is now the cohesive conductor of Van Gaal’s footballing philosophy. Arguably the most important cog in the Manchester United machine the one time misunderstood midfielder is finally getting the recognition he rightly deserves.