It has been a season of inconsistency, a fact highlighted by José Mourinho’s indecision when it comes to his starting team. Case in point, Mourinho has named the same line up in consecutive matches just once this season, at home to Southampton followed by the trip to Hull City. While injuries can disrupt team selection, Manchester United lies 15th on the ‘injury league table’ this season. In truth, it is far more likely reason that constant tinkering is the result of Mourinho not knowing his best side. But one point of consistent excellence this season has been Michael Carrick.
The Geordie has played nine games, with the Reds winning eight. While just two of the nine were in the Premier League, against Swansea City and Arsenal, Carrick offers the team a cohesive balance few can match. Carrick’s best work is done in defensive areas, just in front of his central defenders, where he effectively cuts off passing lanes to opposition strikers, while recycling possession without call on his teammates to track back.
Mourinho is a fan, acknowledging the player’s traits in November with the confession that “he is such a fantastic player and it is a pity, I always loved him, but instead of being his manager when he was 25 I am his manager when he is 35.”
Indeed, Carrick’s age is a problem. The risk of injury increases, while even if United offers Carrick a further year, as Mourinho has indicated, the sun is setting on the player’s Old Trafford career. The need for a deputy becomes more urgent as Carrick edges towards the exit. It should be a priority, even as soon as January.
[blockquote who=”José Mourinho” cite=””]He is such a fantastic player and it is a pity, I always loved him, but instead of being his manager when he was 25 I am his manager when he is 35.[/blockquote]
The Reds already boast some of the finest attacking talents in world football, even if goals have sometimes been hard to come by in the Premier League. Antione Griezmann’s apparent ‘come and get me’ plea and ongoing rumours of a bid for Dimitri Payet are flattering, but it is hard to justify United shelling out more money for that calibre of player where there are more urgent priorities.
It is in defensive areas that United cannot boast of as many riches. Chris Smalling’s poor form is a concern, while Mourinho’s reliance on Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo is distressing for many supporters, even if the pair has performed well in the past month. Each surprised with strong performances against Arsenal, Swansea and West Ham United. It is a partnership that will continue, with Eric Bailly on the sidelines alongside Smalling. Yet, Mourinho also enjoys a wealth of young talent at the heart of defence, including Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah.
It leaves reinforcement in midfield as the most acute need coming into the winter window. There is no surplus of proven holding midfielders. Marouane Fellaini has been tried in a defensive role by Mourinho, Louis van Gaal and David Moyes. It has never worked. As the campaign has worn on Mourinho has discovered, as did he predecessors, that the lumbering Belgian does not have the brain nor technical attributes to fill Carrick’s shoes. Meanwhile, Ander Herrera has put in some very competent performances as a midfielder anchor, but will always be more comfortable in a box-to-box role, where his industrious running comes to the fore.
Then there is Daley Blind, who has been championed as a possible Carrick successor on these pages, but with Luke Shaw’s injury, fitness and consistency problems, United already looks vulnerable in the left-back area. The Dutchman has probably been at his best when playing on the left, which cannot be said of Matteo Darmian or Rojo.
Meanwhile, Moran Schneiderlin’s £29.75 million move to Old Trafford under Van Gaal has not been as successful as all parties hoped. Mourinho has so little faith in the Frenchman that he was forced to swallow some humble pie and recall Bastian Schweinsteiger from his exile in the under-23s. That in itself is a damning indictment of Schneiderlin’s future.
In these circumstances, it would not be surprising if United attempted to bring in reinforcements in January. Europe’s biggest clubs are unlikely to sell their prized assets in the middle of the campaign, but shock signings do happen. Good ones too. After all, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra moved in the winter of 2006. It is an observation that points to big names coming next summer and not in the winter, leaving the mooted acquisitions of Marco Verratti or Casemiro extremely unlikely next month. Less mainstream options are possible though, including William Carvalho, Fabinho and Grzegorz Krychowiak.
Carvalho has previously been the subject of media speculation when it comes to United, as well as a whole host of Premier League clubs. The 24-year-old’s defensive attributes are well noted and, like Carrick, his preferred role is at the base of midfield. While Carvalho’s passing does not have Carrick’s range, he is more than competent at recycling possession and launching counter-attacks. The Sporting prodigy is tied in to an expensive contract though, meaning that United would have to shell out yet more millions to acquire the Portugal international.
Monaco’s Fabinho has been mentioned as a potential signing at right-back, but the Brazilian has excelled in a central midfield role this season. With five goals in 20 appearances, Fabinho is proving to be a more complete footballer than previously understood. One that can defend and attack naturally. His best asset, however, is concentration. Like Carrick, Fabinho has good positional awareness and rarely leaves his defence unguarded.
Finally, Paris Saint Germain midfielder Krychowiak could also be available. Having moved from Sevilla to PSG with his coach, Unai Emery, the no-nonsense Polish player has struggled to find consistent first team action. Krychowiak has made some inroads into the starting team, but cameos have been brief and sporadic, while he essentially remains Thiago Motta’s understudy. Krychowiak will compete with Motta, Verratti, Blaise Matuidi and Adrien Rabiot for a spot in the PSG team, meaning the Pole may be open to a move already – if United is willing to stump up the cash to rehome the bullish midfielder.
The situation is not desperate. It is no coincidence that United’s best performances this season have come when Carrick has held down a role as the Reds’ anchor midfielder. He offers balance and composure and in Carrick’s absence United vulnerable and less coherent. Yet, while there is no Carrick carbon copy out there, good succession planning demands that United dig deep into the club’s bank account once again. It makes a lot of sense to do it in January.
Sources: transfermarkt.co.uk, physioroom.com