Michael Carrick’s goal against Queens Park Rangers on Sunday was 70 games coming; two long years since the Geordie midfielder had last struck for Manchester United in any competition. In that time, for all Carrick’s understated excellence, the midfielder has struggled both to maintain the form of pre-2008 and a place in Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. Indeed, such was the former Tottenham Hotspur man’s perceived slump that many United supporters had called time on the 30-year-old’s career. No longer, with Carrick demonstrating his renewed value to the cause over the past two months.
Excellent once again in United’s 2-0 win at Loftus Road, Carrick not only scored United’s vital second, but demonstrated the kind of dynamic drive that many believed he had lost. The goal may have been rare, but the performance wasn’t a one-off either – Carrick excelled against Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend. Ditto in the Reds’ win at Aston Villa, and in many of United’s matches post defeat to Manchester City in October.
Indeed, in the absence of so many central midfielders – Tom Cleverley, Anderson, Darren Fletcher, even Darron Gibson – Carrick’s reassuring presence has been vital to the club’s resurgence, domestically at least, over the past two months. But few supporters, even the most ardent Carrick supporters, would have predicted the midfielder’s mazy run and calm finish in west London on Sunday.
“The last time I scored a goal from inside my own half was probably when I was playing under-12s!” said Carrick.
“It just seemed to open up for me and I kept on going and going and thought: ‘Why not?’. It was great to see it go in. We had so many chances in the game, so many opportunities to get a shot on target… I was starting to wonder if it was going to be one of those days. So I was delighted to see it go in, though, even if the run seemed to take forever.
“We were definitely a bit disappointed [at half-time]. We created a lot of chances but the final ball just didn’t go our way. We were wary because we knew the game was still on a knife-edge. In those situations all it takes is one goal and the game changes. That’s why it was crucial to score a second goal. Even after that we had chances to score more. Hopefully we can add that to our game and score a few more in the future.”
Carrick has always excelled at rotating possession, easing United from defence into attack, and the player has offered far more protection to United’s back-four than he is given credit for. But the Geordie’s lack of dynamism, and his perceived passivity, has held the player back, both at United and for England. The player’s performance in two Champions League final defeats to Barcelona was so underwhelming that it genuinely shocked.
Moreover, it is a truism that Carrick has never completed a 30 game Premier League season, and only once started more than 40 games for the club in all competitions over a campaign. It is not enough for a player who is fit more often than not; a player whose talents have not always come to the fore.
The question now is not whether Carrick can become the player so many United fans miss in Roy Keane, but the performer the side has rarely seen for two years. After all, Carrick, now into his 30s, isn’t going to become the Irish midfielder overnight, and for that many fans will never come to lionise the £16 million player. But he could, if this form holds, once again form a central plank of United’s campaign for a 20th domestic title this season.
“When Michael Carrick scored that second goal I think that put it to bed,” said Ferguson of the midfielder’s run and shot against QPR. “He’s supposed to sit in the middle of the pitch. I’ll maybe have to fine him! But he’s right bang on form, Michael, he’s been terrific in the last few weeks and we’re pleased with that.”
Alongside Phil Jones in midfield, Carrick has been given additional freedom to break forward, using his attacking as well as those defensive skills. Meanwhile Jones, criticised by Keane for a lack of focus after United’s 2-1 loss to FC Basel in the Champions League a fortnight ago, has added energy to the centre of the park in Fletcher’s prolonged absence, even if the pairing is not nearly as creative as many supporters would like.
“Phil is only 19 years of age but he’s got tremendous potential and he has great energy,” added Ferguson of the £16 million capture from Blackburn Rovers.
“You saw today, he’s up and down the pitch making fantastic runs through the middle, he could have scored two or three today. He hit the post, the goalkeeper made a good save, his energy is really important to the team at the minute.”
Jones will eventually move back into defence this season, and the natural central defender’s occasional lack of positional sense in midfield will be more sorely tested than against Wolves and QPR. Each is genuinely in a relegation dog-fight. After all, Jones’ least impressive performance of the season came, arguably, in central midfield against Liverpool earlier this season.
In the meantime the Preston-born player is providing an excellent foil to Carrick, whose personal renaissance is well underway. The question is: will it last?