UTKARSH GOKHALE | 22nd April 2020

When Roy Keane eventually departed in 2005, he left a void in United’s midfield which wouldn’t be filled until the summer of 2006. Keane, a robust and explosive midfielder with the tendency of going overboard with his antics on and off the pitch was a leader and an example for the younger lot about what it meant to play for Manchester United. His presence would be felt across the club, but it wouldn’t bother the gaffer because every player was replaceable. Michael Carrick wasn’t Roy Keane. Instead, he was a shy boy from Newcastle who eventually went on to become one of United’s most influential midfielders in their glorious history and wasn’t a like for like replacement for the outgoing Keane. The predecessor and the successor of United’s deepest role in midfield were worlds apart but had their own way of mopping things up. Carrick was bought for a simple purpose- steadying the midfield which lacked composure and balance while transitioning from defence to attack. In an era of the Lampards, Gerrards, Scholes’, he was a calming presence and was often dubbed as a smooth operator or a “piano” by former teammate, Gary Neville for his composed presence that he not only exuded, but translated within the fans who would feet at ease when seeing him go about his business.

Carrick would often go unnoticed in the international setup because of his unassuming style and not being a box-to-box midfielder. England’s golden generation relied more on star names and robust players who would play for the badge and emotions, as the clichés suggest rather than relying on technical attributes to break down opponents. The national team had a brilliant squad on paper but the imbalance in the setup meant they didn’t have stability and the tactical guile to fight fire with fire. Although he was ignored by the national team, the club benefitted as he went on to win major honours and etch his name into United’s history as one of their greatest.

Sir Alex Ferguson also remarked that England lost a great opportunity by not playing Carrick and stated that “he was the best central midfield player in English football”. Angered by his comments, England and rival club fans retorted that Ferguson didn’t understand the importance of pairing Gerrard and Lampard together with both starring for their respective clubs. Spain, the most successful team from 2008-2014 had an extraordinary team with a relatively lesser known genius pulling the strings for them. While Xavi and Iniesta were the dynamic duo, the crucial link between the defence and attack was none other than Sergio Busquets, who wasn’t physically imposing or had the pace to outrun opponents but had the awareness of anticipating danger by covering space and making vital interceptions. He was just a cog in the wheel of this huge setup which Vicente del Bosque identified and made sure he was the first name on the team sheet.

Looking at how the Spanish dominated during that particular era, the Three Lions should have taken a leaf out of their book.

Manchester United: the home where Carrick’s talents were welcomed with open arms

As astute as Ferguson was with his man management skills, he knew new signings always needed time to settle down, but Michael Carrick took to football like a duck takes to water. He immediately formed a scintillating partnership with Paul Scholes, the latter thrusted with the responsibility of dictating the game and breaking down opponents while the former played as a holding midfielder. Scholes would often make the headlines with stunning long-range efforts and goals, but it was Michael who gave him the freedom to move forward and not worry about tackling or winning the ball. While the ‘Ginger Prince’ controlled the rhythm, Carrick brought stability and tranquillity in abundance. The performance barometer often changes in the eyes of the press because if you have been bought by Manchester United for £18 million, you automatically have to chip in with 10 goals and 10 assists every season. England certainly felt Carrick couldn’t contribute offensively, so they opted for a more dynamic approach and deployed 4-4-2 as a standard formation for most of their games.

Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, both central midfielders but not defensive midfielders often ventured forward looking for goals or linking up play which left a gap in the centre of the park for other teams to exploit. Coaches have often gone for big names without looking at the strengths and weaknesses of players available at their disposal, failing to plan and planning to fail as the saying goes.




















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Carrick having played lesser games than the two most decorated English players of all time, has inarguably contributed more defensively.

Imagine Carrick behind these two and it’s a wrap for everyone else

Carrick and Scholes adopted a more continental playing style embraced by their boss and his assistant which relied on keeping possession. Scholes having taken up the role of a deep-lying playmaker opted to pull the strings while Carrick was given the role of picking up the scraps and help out the defensive line. Not relying on his pace, stamina and box-to-box play, his reading of the game helped him to anticipate threats and subsequently nullify them. His ability to cover spaces and make interceptions was highly valued and appreciated at United and which helped his teammates find positions where he could look for them while switching from defence to attack. The distribution of the ball, vision, creativity, playmaking skills and range of passing put him amongst elite company in Europe. But most of all, what tied everything special about Michael Carrick was his footballing brain, which was extremely ahead of its time considering his approach to the game, which was far from the traditional English way of playing in midfield.

Probably his only drawback was not scoring often which may have led to managers not putting enough faith in him. His unassuming style and not being an all action midfielder, unlike his contemporaries contributed to his lack of involvement with the national setup. Wayne Rooney on record had said that managers preferred the combination of Gerrard and Lampard because they had flair. England didn’t win when it mattered that often because they didn’t warm up to the fact that the team desperately needed a central defensive midfielder, and United on the other hand were synonymous with lifting trophies. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the missing element.

While the newspapers would be full of praise for the likes of Nemanja Vidić, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and Paul Scholes but at Carrington, Carrick’s value and importance was felt to a massive extent and he was considered an instrumental player in the dressing room. The man was simply irreplaceable.

Inside the skewed mindset that was set out to close all doors on one of England’s most underrated gems

England endured an embarrassing period between 2006-2016 where they were outperformed by sides that were light years behind them on paper, but on the pitch, the story was a grim one for the originators of the beautiful game. During this period, Carrick went to South Africa in 2010 but was not started for a single game for reasons best known to Fabio Capello.

Ahead of his time

In 2011 when Roy Hodgson called on Carrick, he refused saying he wouldn’t want to be a part of the international setup anymore having become disenchanted with the lack of playing time and rightfully so. The fact that Sven-Göran Eriksson has the cheek to defend his decision of sticking with a Lampard-Gerrard pair to this day is reflective of the lethargically rigid approach that the Swedish had towards winning football matches and to an era where the men at the helm were simply not up to the task.

When England played against Italy in a friendly in 2012 and beat them 2-1, people were heaping praise on the likes of Andros Townsend and Ross Barkley. But what people failed to realise is that they were allowed to be adventurous because they had a disciplined Carrick behind them. The former Spurs orchestrator would pick up the pieces and start again as players would run past him and he could look for them and find them at the drop of a hat. When Carrick was interviewed in 2013, he said it’s his job to help the defence and act as an extra cover for them and also service the attackers and wide men simultaneously. It’s surprising that while the Spaniards consider Sergio Busquets as one who belongs in the holy grail of midfielders for what he does best and Marcos Senna was heralded before him, but the English criticize Michael Carrick on a short-sighted and simplistic ground that he doesn’t score enough goals. That’s the stark difference between the mentalities between England and Spain and has been a catalyst for what both nations have achieved internationally. A lack of understanding your primary assets and in the process, failing to find the right balance is footballing suicide at any level.

Similarly, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javier Mascherano were the standout players in the 2014 World Cup for their respective sides, but they were never on the front pages because they didn’t have the goals in them. Yet, their countries regard them as heroes in contrast to Carrick. A sad state of affairs to say the least.

Real recognise real

While several managers and the general public have blatantly failed to understand how special a player Michael Carrick, here are some quotes from the best in the business who raved about the English midfield maestro in his heyday.

“He’s one of the best holding midfielders I’ve ever seen in my life, by far. He’s the level of Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets at Barcelona and Bayern Munich.”

  – Pep Guardiola

“Carrick gives United balance and can play defensively too. He passes well, has a good shot and is a complete player.”

   – Xavi Hernández

“I’ve missed a player like Michael Carrick in the England midfield, somebody who knows how to be in the right place at the right time. You gain a lot from having a player like Carrick as a partner.”

    – Xabi Alonso

“Carrick is a quality passer and he could play for Barcelona; he would be perfectly suited to their game. I think he is an underrated player in England and sometimes not only should the goal scorer be rewarded but the real players at the heart of the game.”

     – Arsène Wenger

“Michael is not a guy that seeks a lot of publicity. He is a quiet lad. He goes about his life in a similar way to Scholes. It doesn’t mean he is not recognised by us. You get players like that. Denis Irwin was the same. He was not the type to trumpet his achievements. It is quite refreshing in the modern game that we have players who can rely on their ability, not only by promoting or projecting themselves. Michael is mentally strong, too. He has a different personality to most players. That can be misread by a lot of people, thinking he has to be encouraged all the time. That is not the case.”

    – Sir Alex Ferguson

“I remember Michael coming in and taking over the number 16 shirt from Roy Keane, one of the Premier League’s best ever midfielders. He had big boots to fill, but I think he’s proven that he’s more than worthy of the shirt. I loved playing with him. I always felt comfortable and safe next to him, and he probably didn’t get the credit he deserved at the time, but he’s starting to get that now. When Michael plays, United usually win, and I like that there’s nothing flashy about him. He never broke a sweat, either. He was like a Rolls-Royce, just cruising around a football pitch.”

      – Paul Scholes

“When you play with Michael Carrick you think there is authority, control, peace. When you are on a football pitch playing against Liverpool or Manchester City, you need peace around you as well. You sometimes don’t want people running around like blue-a*se flies. Scholes and Carrick together were peaceful. It was like going into a bar and hearing a piano playing. It’s relaxing. Listening to some good rock is good and you like that too but sometimes it’s nice to listen to a piano. Carrick’s a piano.”

      – Gary Neville

“Not only this season but every year. People do not realise the amount of work Carrick delivers until he has gone.”

       – Thierry Henry, upon naming Carrick his most underrated player in the Premier League in 2015

“Even now he would be the first one in the team now even given his age if he was Italian he would still be playing now. They would still be saying he’s a leader he’s experienced he can play the ball in the right way. Gareth Southgate would cry out for a player like Carrick.”

    – Rio Ferdinand on how underrated Carrick has been amongst the English and Southgate should consider taking him for the World Cup, back in 2018

Final thoughts

Ferguson’s last season was an absolute belter for United fans as they won the league title by 11 points but what didn’t get highlighted was the fact that it was Carrick who was the orchestrator. Robin van Persie with 24 goals was the standout player but Carrick was phenomenal throughout. He probably got lost in the kerfuffle amidst the contract saga between Rooney and the club but a certain Arsène Wenger wasn’t surprised at all by the Englishman’s ability, going on to say that Michael Carrick was his player of the season, adding that he could play in the brilliant Barcelona midfield.

Another legendary manager of the game in Louis van Gaal was truly relieved that he had Carrick in his team who could understand his shapes and system, labelling him as a “trainer coach” during games. The former Barcelona boss was spot on in his assessment as his trusted older statesman has gone on to become a first-team coach at United, assisting Ole Gunnar Solskjær at present.

United have had their best runs when he has been in the team, something which the national team could have looked at and not ignored so blatantly. After all, Carrick is one of the few players who possesses a special breed of footballing intelligence and spatial awareness that one would associate with the Spaniards and the Dutch. England would have been better placed at progressing forward, with the explosive duo of Gerrard and Lampard had Carrick started for them in a three-man midfield and its highly possible that they could have come away with a trophy or two. Players like these don’t often get the praise they deserve but are quickly recognised by peers who understand what it is to play in that position week in week out.

Under the radar, yet exceptional at his job, Michael Carrick was a team man with every fibre of his being and his brilliance has never been fully grasped and celebrated. His mere 34 caps back this school of thought up. As English fans reflect upon their failures in tournament football, hindsight is a wonderful thing as they truly missed out on seeing Carrick do what he does best in a Three Lions strip.