A shade of the pull-stringing regista of 2008, Sir Alex Ferguson must now turn to Michael Carrick if Manchester United are to regain their form.
From majestic to maligned. Even before Michael Carrick endured his most miserable evening for Manchester United at the 2009 Champions League Rome final, symptoms had begun to appear that he had reached his zenith. To see one of football’s least irascible characters boot a water bottle after the final whistle was a telling illustration of exasperation at not just a comprehensive defeat, but his own performance.
United’s tactics in unlocking the Barcelona defence depended on Carrick spraying 40 or 50 yard passes to Cristiano Ronaldo in the channels. His uncharacteristically incompetent execution ensured that, despite a woeful team display, he copped the majority of the grief.
One rumour that soon spread was that Sir Alex Ferguson was so dismayed by Carrick choking that he punched him. Unlikely yet amusing, the Scot’s reaction towards the Wallsend graduate has nevertheless been an ambivalent one in the two-and-a-half-years since then. After the following season’s acrimonious exit to Bayern Munich in the last eight, Carrick didn’t start any of the five remaining games.
At fault for both goals (he was outmuscled by Ivica Olic and failed to close down Arjen Robben), he appeared twice as a substitute but was left out entirely from the squad for the next immediate fixture against Blackburn.
Now the ex-Tottenham man has emerged as an improbable saviour for United. Borne out of desperation, supporters are clamouring for him to play second fiddle to Tom Cleverley in midfield as Ferguson runs out of functioning duos and trios. Identifying the middle of his spine via a lucky dip had its downfalls (the derby) but at least concluded that Darren Fletcher and Anderson are a more cataclysmic duo than the Brazilian and Carrick.
The rotund Porto Alegre midfielder can’t help but have a detrimental influence on his teammates. Carrick’s regression can be traced back to when he and Anderson adopted Battleships tactics to guess where Steven Gerrard would be roaming as he caused carnage in Liverpool’s 4-1 win in 2009. Less than three months ago Anderson was trusted by Ferguson to shoulder responsibility, now he can’t even be trusted to sit on the bench (for fear of it collapsing under his weight, perhaps?).
His and Carrick’s trophy-laden careers at United have been defined by peaks and troughs, the difference with the latter is that he is more disciplined. Throughout his five years in Manchester he has performed exceptionally against Chelsea and Arsenal on multiple occasions, but it was unsurprisingly in Europe where he hit the heights.
When it was announced in March that he had signed a new three-year contract, the response was arctic cold.
At the Giuseppe Meazza against Internazionale, he compelled the hard-to-please Gazetta dello Sport to award him a rare eight-out-of-ten. ‘Ballissimo Carrick’ the match report extolled. A month beforehand he assisted Dimitar Berbatov with an exceptional pass that merited the often frivolous comparisons to Andrea Pirlo. That and an assist for Nani against Arsenal the previous campaign augment the theory of Carrick pre-Rome, and post-Rome.
He has had sporadic bursts of form the past two-and-a-half seasons, but he is an easy expendable. In this season’s Community Shield, United dominated Manchester City in the first half but trailed 2-0 at the break. The collective embodied the individual in Carrick’s case as he retained the ball easily yet was infuriatingly unadventurous, especially when neglecting to take a strike at Joe Hart’s goal on one opportunistic occasion. He was substituted at the break for Cleverley, United won 3-2 and he didn’t start again until September.
A placid character on the pitch, it has transposed on to his own game. He last scored over 21 months ago against a porous Portsmouth in a 5-0 win during a rare spurt of form – he had netted against Manchester City the previous week.
When it was announced in March that he had signed a new three-year contract, the response was arctic cold. Endemic of the Glazer regime and a manager’s blinkered outlook, it was an astonishing U-turn after Ferguson was keen to offload him in the aftermath of the Bayern loss. Redissue fanzine, whose front covers are influenced by Private Eye, ran with a picture of Carrick signing his contract with the loathed club chief executive David Gill. ‘I can’t believe I’m still getting away with this.’ read the speech bubble emanating from both men, under the headline ‘Capable Hands Signs Incapable Feet’.
Nicknamed ‘Carwreck’ by some due to his plight, he has now converted from the expendable to the indispensable. Because he wears number 16 and bears no resemblance to Roy Keane in playing style, he has struggled since his arrival to get onside with all United supporters. That Ferguson annually reminds the nation that Carrick is a ‘slow-starter’ doesn’t aid his image as an ineffectual lightweight.
Against Sunderland in the last home game however he played an underrated pass to Javier Hernández, only for the Mexican to horribly squander the chance. It was a reminder of his vision and how effective he can be when he takes the handbrake off. He is not tough enough to be a defensive midfielder, yet possesses the range and technique to be a valuable quarterback asset for United like he was yesteryear. An interim solution Carrick may be, but if he performs to the heights of the early segment of his United career, he could prove to be a permanent solution.
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