When it is was announced by Louis Van Gaal that Michael Carrick would miss the remainder of the season Manchester United fans got very nervous. They got nervous because the difference in United’s fortunes this season with and without the veteran midfielder has been jarringly obvious. The 33 year old midfielder has solidified his importance to the United team in his later years perhaps allowing people to see how under-appreciated he has been in recent times.
Despite Van Gaal’s summer spending spree on an array of footballing talent, it is hard to find a substitute for class especially for a midfield anchor with the experience and ability of Michael Carrick. Daley Blind started the season in the Carrick role. The versatile Dutchman sat off the midfield, protected his back four comfortably taking up possession and recycling possession with ease. It had seemed then that United may have found themselves a potential gem, a player ready to take up Carrick’s mantle at the heart of the United side.
Michael Carrick’s return to the side, having missed the season’s first 9 fixtures, made it readily apparent that there is no replacing Michael Carrick, at least not yet. Having only won 3 of their opening 9 fixtures of the season without Carrick the Red Devils went on a streak, winning 6 in a row when Carrick completed 90 minutes. Van Gaal’s men managed 10 games unbeaten with Carrick anchoring the midfield and dictating pace. His presence seemed to rid the United side of their impotence in attack. Teams were prepared to sit off United and test them to break down their stiff, rigid defences. It became a recurring theme that Van Gaal’s side was unable to find the incisive pass to unlock defences. Instead they managed to hold possession for long spells with side-ways and backwards passes to no end result.
Michael Carrick has the range of passing to open up defences. A player just as comfortable playing a direct 10 yard pass into the feet of a striker, as he is pinging a 30 yard diagonal onto an advancing winger. His 90% pass accuracy this season reflects his consistency despite his advancing years. If the man you charge as being the lynchpin of your side is capable of playing 90 minutes each week in the Premier League while completing 90% of his passes, then you are going to sorely miss him when he isn’t available. Not only are his performances on the ball important for United, but it is the presence that he brings to the side. There is a confidence in the rest of the squad when he is on the pitch and it is clear why. When you are playing in a team with Michael Carrick in it you know you will always have an option. If you are being pressed hard or struggling to find the killer pass it will calm your nerves when you know you can trust Michael Carrick with the ball. Furthermore, his discipline and experience in his position makes it easier for other midfielders to play off him. Ander Herrera is capable of great direct runs out of midfield which are undoubtedly more comfortable for him when he knows Carrick is the man covering.
Prior to Manchester United’s victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday they had played 18 games with and 17 games without Michael Carrick this season. In the 18 he played United only lost on 2 occasions, a 72.2% win percentage. Compare that with the sides 6 losses and 35.3% win percentage in the 17 games without him, prior to the Crystal Palace win which snapped a 3 game losing streak that started when Carrick got injured. Having mentioned that his presence enforces United’s ability to break down opposition defences, the stats show that he also helps stiffen up their own. While United only concede an average of 0.7 goals per game with Carrick playing they concede twice as many on average with 1.4 per game when he is missing. In fact, it is perhaps Carrick’s defensive influence that is more significant considering that their average goals scored per game is only 0.3 higher with him than it is without him, whereas, as shown, goals conceded halves.
Louis Van Gaal made sure that Carrick signed a one-year extension to his contract to keep him around the squad. Van Gaal has said how important Carrick is to his squad not only as a player but his influence in the dressing room calling Carrick his “second captain”. There is no doubt that the powers that be at United will spend the summer trying to capture a talent capable of replacing Carrick in the long term while negating any distress when the Englishman isn’t available in the short term. What is clear is that there aren’t many Carrick’s going around. Some may disagree with the comparison but his influence is similar to that of Pirlo in his later years at Juventus and even Xavi at Barcelona prior to this season. He has been a player whose talents have been underappreciated for too long, by United fans and most disturbingly the England set-up. It is becoming clear that a player they have craved for so long has been sat right under their noses not getting a fair crack at International level. What is good to see is that his efforts are being noticed now.
Perhaps the best signing United have made this year is renewing Carrick’s contract for another year. The red half of Manchester will no doubt be aiming for the League title next season and it is clear that they will need a fit and ready Michael Carrick if they hope to make that dream a reality.