Thursday, November 20, 2008

Michael Carrick: the crucial piece of the jigsaw

Sir Alex Ferguson has been known to spend large amounts of money on midfielders of, according to short-sighted media and fans, questionable utility. Owen Hargreaves and Juan Sebastian Veron alone come to mind. Yet both of these players are the embodiment of the unlikely mix of skill, strength and tactical intelligence. As is Michael Carrick, another midfielder supposedly struggling to justify his price tag.

Regardless of price, one thing Fergie does not do is misjudge talent or the needs of his team. Hargreaves' and Veron's impacts at United were limited, but Carrick's is massive. The shocking fact is that his impact remains unseen - such is the nature of his role. His former club, Tottenham Hotspur, owe their recent instability entirely to the continued vacancy of his position in their midfield. As they failed to see the importance of his position, Spurs have spent £13million out of the £18million they received for Carrick's sale on paying compensation and severance packages for three different managers and their former clubs.

Carrick's importance can be situated in a broader movement - history has favoured him to an extent. The tactical evolution of modern football has meant more and more lone strikers and goals from midfield. The 4-3-3 of old is dead, replaced by a 4-5-1 with fluidity in attack, goalscoring wingers and a strong base in midfield. Often teams play with no strikers at all. Manchester United owe their recent success to the mastery of this evolution. The fluidity in attack, the goals from a certain Portuguese winger, and the solid midfield base Michael Carrick provides tick all the boxes of modern football.

Carrick assures solidity without overreliance on tackling or physicality. His deep position does not imply a defensive mindset but an astute tactical awareness. His passes are the expressions of his close reading of the game, his feet dictating the tempo and his passes moving the game forward or back as required.

In light of England's 2-1 win in Berlin last night, Carrick's importance has never been greater. England played a neat and tidy game, yet fans calling in to football chat shows could not quite describe this new feeling, using the word "solidity" in most cases as the best approximation. The fact that England fans could only feel, rather than see, the source of this newfound solidity perhaps explains why Carrick will remain the invisible man.

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