Watching Michael Carrick leave the Old Trafford turf for the last time near the end of last season was a moment of mixed emotions. For a player who has avoided the spotlight most of his career, it was rewarding to see him being the main attraction for a change, with what turned out to be a richly-deserved celebration of his contribution to United’s recent history, and a fitting conclusion to his own successful career. Conversely, it was sad to see him depart the pitch for the final time, not only symbolically as the final key player from Fergie’s glorious era, but also because his footballing ability and intelligence will be sorely missed and difficult to replace.
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His main qualities were obvious: his passing range, his calmness and composure, an excellent reading of the game (he would often win the ball back through interceptions rather than tackling), and his consistency. One thing I always loved about Carrick, and it’s not an area of his game that is often highlighted, was his bravery. Courage in football, particularly in England, is traditionally translated into tough-tackles, squaring up to opponents, taking a penalty, battling on through injury, or rallying your teammates. There is substance to that point of view, but it’s a perspective that has become dated. Perhaps in the 1980s and 90s those attributes were more prominent: the game was more physical, and there was greater leniency in the sort of tackles that were allowed, and even encouraged.
Football, though, has changed. One element that has becoming increasingly common is the high press. Man City and Liverpool are the best in the Premiership at it (United, maddeningly, do it in fits and starts), and it exerts huge pressure on whoever has the ball. Lose possession and the opposition is immediately in an advanced area of the pitch, bearing down on goal. What often happens is players succumb to that pressure and lose the ball by rushing a pass, or hitting it long, effectively submitting to a sense of panic. United’s home performance against Man City in November last year was the epitome of apprehension, players regularly thumping the ball away when hounded by several light-blue attackers.
The weakness of a high press is the gaps that are left exposed behind the front wave of forwards. What it requires from the team in possession is to retain their composure and find the pass through the opposition. That was the bravery Carrick possessed. No matter where he was on the pitch, and who was surrounding him, he was never robbed of his composure, and would often calmly turn and play an incisive ball, often forward, to a teammate. It made him much more than a shield for the back four; he instigated most of United’s attacks.
It helped enormously that he was two-footed. Equally comfortable turning either way and using his right or left foot to pass long or short, it gave him an escape route in every situation, always able to turn away from trouble rather than into it.
His detractors claimed he was too slow, but they were missing the point – it wasn’t prolonged in the way Fellaini, for instance, labours on the ball. Instead, it was measured and effective, retaining possessing and threading the ball through for United to charge forward.
The way he played the game meant he was never a typical English midfielder. Like Paul Scholes, he felt more like a continental player, a view consolidated by many European players and coaches, who valued him much higher than their English counterparts. The way he was ignored by England for much of his career was illogical and absurd. He has a total of 34 caps, a meagre total for a player of his stature. In particular, from 2007 to 2011, when he was a key component of United’s hugely-successful team, he only made 11 England appearances in 5 seasons. For a national team that struggled for so long to retain possession, his sustained absences from the team is hard to comprehend. Ultimately, England were so obsessed with solving a Gerrard-Lampard shaped problem that had no obvious cure, they ignored the alternative solution together. Carrick should have been a fixture in that team, and let Gerrard and Lampard compete with each other to accompany him.
He made 316 appearances for Manchester United. He won’t be remembered as one of the greats, but that’s mostly because his understated performance on the pitch was equally matched off the field. Again, like Scholes, he shunned the limelight and the acclaim. He was the ultimate team player.
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Perhaps one mark against his name, and another factor that reduced the attention he received, will be his scoring record: his return of only 17 goals from 316 matches was disappointing for a player of his calibre. When he did score, it always made you wonder why it didn’t happen more regularly, such was the assurance and confidence in his finishing ability. He could strike a ball perfectly from long-range, as well as pass the ball consummately into the corner into the net, but whatever reason, his name on the scoresheet was a rare occurrence. The fact he played in a team that had such a goal-threat anyway probably contributed: he was content to simply let Rooney and Ronaldo do their thing. His primary concern was to provide a defensive shield and orchestrate the play from deep, a role he fulfilled with aplomb.
As Carrick moves into Mourinho’s back-room team, Shakhtar Donetsk’s Fred will be the player tasked with replacing him on the pitch. Fred has a tough assignment on his hands. Fortunately, he will have a promising new coach to help him…