In July this year, Louis Van Gaal claimed that it would take at least three months before Manchester United’s shoots of recovery would be seen poking through the dour concrete slab dropped onto the club during the David Moyes era. It’s hard to imagine United’s results getting much worse this season, yet moods of optimism and defiance still remain around Old Trafford, despite suffering yet another defeat to noisy neighbours Manchester City on Sunday.
Three months is a long time in football; just ask Michael Carrick. United announced that Carrick would miss around three months of the season with an ankle injury before a ball had even been kicked in the Premier League. This setback was somewhat diluted by the sea change at Old Trafford; wholesale changes were on the way and the appointment of Louis Van Gaal had given an air of optimism not seen at the club for many months.
Indeed, much has changed at United since Carrick’s injury was announced. Noel Gallagher recently alluded to the fact that it was now ‘raining tenners’ at the Theatre Of Dreams, though it would take a downpour of biblical proportions to refill the vaults after United’s summer spending spree.
Before most of the new blood arrived however, Darren Fletcher was given a chance to operate in midfield during United’s pre-season tour of America. The Scotsman was subsequently handed the role of vice-captain, a remarkable achievement for Fletcher after his battle against a chronic bowel condition. His performances suggested that he still had a lot to offer at Old Trafford, at least until a ‘big name’ midfielder joined the club.
While Fletcher has been largely overlooked since, playing just three times, United’s first summer signing Ander Herrera has been much more involved, though his progress has been curtailed by numerous injuries. The Spaniard has made five appearances, scoring twice and grabbing an assist in the process. He also has a passing completion rate of 88.5%, very impressive for a player still finding his feet in England.
United’s most consistent performer in midfield has arguably been Daley Blind, who was also brought in during the summer transfer window. The Dutchman was a key performer in Van Gaal’s World Cup squad, and was plucked from Ajax for £14 million . Blind has made a solid start to his United career, playing seven times and successfully completing 89.7% of his attempted passes. He also scored a crucial late equaliser at The Hawthorns, with a typically calm finish.
The surprise of the season has to be Marouane Fellaini’s resurgence under Van Gaal. The fluffy Belgian has started United’s biggest matches to date, against Chelsea and Manchester City, as well as making a goalscoring appearance from the bench against West Brom. His bullet header against Chelsea paved the way for Van Persie’s last gasp equaliser, and he should have scored with his comedic bonce against City. He has created four chances, as well as having four shots on target, and has vastly improved on last season.
Carrick experienced little competition for his place last season; his rivals in the midfield were a different kettle of fish entirely. Anderson, Tom Cleverley, an ageing Ryan Giggs, an unfit Darren Fletcher, an out of form Fellaini and a striker named Wayne meant that, when fit, Carrick waltzed into the first eleven.
United’s new recruits, and Fellaini’s impressive performances mean that the thirty-three year old will need to work harder than ever to become a first team regular in midfield this season. Ironically, Carrick may have timed his return badly in his favoured position, but perfectly to slot into United’s crumbling defence. He added composure when he was forced into action against Manchester City and with injuries, suspension and inexperience all detracting from United’s back line, Carrick may get an extended run in the team at centre back.
Despite winning copious amounts of silverware, Carrick has only recently been fully appreciated at Old Trafford. His celebration from the bench for Van Persie’s equaliser show the passion he still possesses for United.
If Van Gaal can get the best out of Fellaini, just imagine what he can do with Michael Carrick.