This article is a fan view and Khel Now does not endorse the views expressed in it…
I studied at a boarding school till 2007. This meant no television and the only way I could follow my favourite team Manchester United was through the back pages of ‘The Telegraph’, a newspaper that was put up on our Noticeboard every day. They mostly put up the front and back pages and I was lucky that the last page was Sports. It was through one of these back pages that I discovered on July 31, 2006 that United had signed Michael Carrick from Tottenham Hotspur for £18.3m, making him the sixth most expensive player in United’s history at that time.
In those days before YouTube was prevalent and television was out of reach, I did not know much about Carrick. I was glad that they had finally signed a proper central midfielder since Roy Keane had left the previous season and there was a gaping hole in the centre of United’s midfield alongside Paul Scholes. The report also mentioned he was given Keane’s No. 18 shirt and I remember being sceptical about whether he would be our next Keane.
Carrick arrived from Spurs with a burgeoning reputation
This was the sentiment shared by most fans and Sir Alex Ferguson has been harping on the fact for years since that Carrick was never signed to be Keane’s direct replacement. He was a different type of player, a player fans would not understand for a long time and not appreciate for an even longer time. Carrick was the ultimate acquired taste. Later, he became one of the most divisive figures in football in spite of a personality to the absolute contrary.
What one thought about Carrick became a measure of one’s footballing knowledge and understanding. Some thought he was useless, the ultimate ‘water carrier’ in a United team that has regularly been filled with superstars. Others were of the opinion that he made everyone else tick, controlled the rhythm of the game though in a much less obvious way than Scholes. This was reflected in the chant that United fans coined for him, a sort of grudging admiration even from his own fans – ‘It’s not Scholes you know, it’s Carrick’.
The role of the defensive midfielder caught the public imagination only after Claude Makelele made the position his own. The ‘holding midfielder’ was born which was different from destructors like Gennaro Gattuso and Mark van Bommel and also from the box-to-box midfield generals like Bryan Robson, Patrick Vieira and Keane. The ‘regista’, as the Italians call it.
Carrick revolutionalized the role of the holding midfielder in the English game
Carrick, who, with his unassuming style of play, relied more on awareness and anticipation as opposed to traditional English qualities like pace and physical strength is England’s only natural regista. A position and a style of play more continental than English, he was underrated for a long time by his own countrymen. Arsene Wenger, when picking Carrick over his former captain Robin van Persie for the PFA Player of the Year in the 2012-13 season, said “I would choose Carrick. He is a quality passer. He could play for Barcelona; he would perfectly suit their game. He has a good vision and is an intelligent player.”
Further praise was forthcoming from the then Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola himself, a lifelong Carrick admirer who said, “I am a big fan of Michael Carrick. He’s one of the best holding midfielders I’ve ever seen in my life by far. ‘He’s at the level of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets.”
To be honest, I did take some time myself to warm up to Carrick and it was only after the 2007-08 season that I was fully won over and convinced about what he brought to the team. I remember watching United’s matches with friends in my college hostel who would slag off Carrick every time he got the ball. He always picks the easy ball they said, always passed sideways. This cannot have been farther from the truth.
Over the years, Carrick has always looked to pick a forward pass; his pass success rate has been extraordinary. His average pass accuracy rate for the last five seasons has been 88%. In the 2012-13 season that was his most productive in terms of personal awards, Carrick made a total of 2040 forward passes in the Premier League compared to Steven Gerrard who made 1506 passes, David Silva who made 1086 and Eden Hazard who made only 843 such passes.
The ones who mattered always rated him. His manager, his teammates and even opponents always held Carrick in the highest regard for the calmness and composure he brought to the middle of the field for United. Sir Alex once described Carrick as the best English midfielder in 2014 saying, “I think Michael’s the best central midfielder in English football. I think he’s the best English player in the game.”
Successive England managers failed to make the most of his talents
But sadly this did not hold true for his England managers. Sven-Goran Eriksson gave him his debut in 2001 against Mexico and it is under Eriksson that Carrick made his first World Cup appearance against Ecuador in 2006. The fact that it would also be his last underlines how criminally underused he was by successive England managers. The last of his international caps was won against Spain in 2015. 14 years, four managers and just 34 caps?
Contrast that with his stellar club career with West Ham, Spurs and United which has so far seen him play 701 games and score 34 goals. 459 of those were at the very highest level with United with whom he has won every trophy possible – a total of 5 Premier League titles, 6 Community Shields, 3 League Cups, The FA Cup, Champions League, World Club Cup and most recently the Europa League.
Deservedly he has been granted a testimonial by United on 4th June which will see him reunite with the 2008 Champions League team featuring the likes of Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand and play against an All-Stars XI consisting of names like John Terry, Gerrard and fRANK Lampard. The last two have been majorly responsible for Carrick’s England career or rather the lack of it.
Carrick was not the only United midfielder to have suffered due to England managers trying to accommodate both Gerrard and Lampard in the same team. Scholes was shunted out to the left wing which led to him retiring at the peak of his powers after Euro 2004.
This proved to be a boon for United as they stomped to a first league title in three years with Carrick and Scholes the lynchpins in Carrick’s first season with United. Ferguson remarked that the major reason for their title success was the maturity of his midfield. The duo’s style of play was aptly described by Gary Neville. He remarked, “Scholes and Carrick together was peaceful. It was like going into a bar and hearing a piano playing. It’s relaxing.”
Carrick would be a vital part of the United midfield as they won a hat-trick of titles and scored his first Champions League goals in a 7-1 defeat of Roma at Old Trafford. Both were fantastic shots from outside the box and I can still remember excitedly watching the match and beginning to really like Carrick. He won the Champions League against Chelsea in Moscow in 2008 where he played the full game and went on to start two more European finals, both against Barcelona in 2009 and 2011.
The midfielder has won everything there is to win
He would later go on to describe the 2009 Final as “the worst night in his career” as Barcelona gave United a footballing lesson. He started the game instead of Scholes and at one stage in the second half was the only midfielder as United played with Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Giggs, Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov upfront. His importance to United was always established but he finally got some recognition from the outside world in the 2012-13 season where he helped United win the league in Fergie’s final season.
A PFA Players’ Player of the Year nomination and United’s Players’ Player of the Year award only confirmed his status as one of the Premier League’s finest midfielders.
United, post-Fergie, have been a different beast and it is to Carrick’s credit that he has proved himself invaluable to David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. LvG, a tactical master who appointed him vice-captain behind Rooney, described him as “his general on the field” and as a ‘trainer coach’, rating his footballing intelligence highly. A lot of subsequent statistics in recent years have come up positively correlating United’s success percentage when Carrick plays.
Numbers only tell one side of the story but Carrick’s importance to United has only increased over the years, especially in the last few, where his calmness and composure have proved to be a stabilising presence both on and off the pitch. United finally look to be back where they belong under Mourinho, who has just rewarded the soon to be 36-year old Carrick with a one-year extension to his contract. It increasingly looks like this is going to be the Geordie’s final season in the Premier League and nothing will please him more than to go out with another league title.
With Rooney also rumoured to be on the way out, Carrick remains the last link with the United team I watched growing up. One of the major reasons which made Carrick one of my favourite United players was that his off-field demeanour also resonated with me. The calmness with which he fields questions in interviews, looking as nonplussed as he is stroking the ball around Old Trafford, never ruffled. The epitome of humility, Carrick is someone who I always thought was a person one could aspire to be through sheer hard work and effort.
Someone like a Ronaldo, Giggs or Scholes always looked special, you never really thought you could actually be like them. Carrick, on the other hand, made it all look deceptively easy going through games without breaking a sweat. Perhaps why he has never been accorded the recognition his peers have got. He is probably nonplussed about that too. The ultimate team player – Michael Carrick.