Let there be no doubt, Michael Carrick’s role in Manchester United’s recent success is central, despite the Geordie’s many critics. The former Tottenham Hotspur midfielder’s ability to quickly win and recycle possession helped United succeed as a dynamic counter-attacking side in the wake of Roy Keane’s departure.
Arguably United would – could – not have secured three Premier League trophies in a row from 2007 onwards and the Champions League title in 2008, without the laid back midfielder. Yet, for seemingly more than a year Carrick’s form has hit rock bottom.
Slower to the ball, more wasteful and lacking a certain, for want of a better word, oomph, Carrick found himself out of the United team and secretly hawked around for a summer transfer. Sunderland showed initial interest but a mooted £10 million transfer back to his native North East failed to materialise.
Indeed, the opening weeks of the season saw no improvement in the 29-year-old’s abysmal form and even those supporters cognisant of Carrick’s pivotal, if understated, role in recent successes grew weary. In palpably the weakest area of United’s squad, Carrick should be dominating central midfield. At close to £18 million Carrick was, after all, brought to the club at great cost.
Yet, there is seemingly, to use the old cliché, light at the end of the tunnel, with Carrick selected for the past six games in a row, including five wins on the bounce. In United’s recent victories over Bursaspor and Tottenham, Carrick, while not a stand out performer, certainly provided a reminder of his abilities.
The Geordie’s smart square pass for Darren Fletcher’s opening goal in Turkey on Tuesday night followed an encouraging performance against his former team in United’s victory over Spurs at the weekend.
It’s a return to form Carrick credits to recovery from injury, with the midfielder suffering from an achilies tendon problem in the opening weeks of the season.
“I should have got something done about my Achilles sooner because I was carrying it for a while,” said the midfielder, who will turn 30 next summer.
“It is easier to say that now I have got rid of it because I feel great.
“But it is probably only how I feel now that I realise how bad it was. I feel good now and am happy with my game.”
Two good performances do not necessarily mean that Carrick has clambered out of the worst – and longest – slump of his career of course. But there is at least hope that the last embers of the player’s United career may flicker once again.
With Paul Scholes majestic only in fleeting bursts, Fletcher out-of-sorts, Anderson unfit and Darron Gibson simply not good enough, United has struggled in central midfield this season. Indeed, draws with Sunderland and West Bromwich Albion saw supposedly inferior teams out-pass and out-muscle United in the centre of the park.
Carrick though is defiant, despite manager Sir Alex Ferguson being open to offers for the midfielder this summer.
“I didn’t think I had to answer any critics,” he said.
“The only opinions that count are those of the manager and the staff. You just have to brush aside the rest of it and believe in yourself.
“I know when I am not playing well. I wasn’t hitting my best form so I couldn’t argue about the teams the manager was picking.
“I am not big enough to be saying I should be playing every game, so it was up to me to play well again.”
The charge levelled at Carrick over his career is of a failure of character; that he should be more dominant, more like Roy Keane. At the height of Carrick’s powers it was a fallacious criticism, missing the point that few players were ever as dominant – on or off the pitch – as the Irishman.
Moreover, Carrick’s raison d’être lay not in his destructive side but the player’s ability to get United moving rapidly from back to front, which was perhaps even more important than the midfielder’s gifted range of passing.
But positive recent performances mean little unless Carrick can translate very recent form into performances at the highest level. Intuitively, United still looks well short of Europe’s finest in the midfield. After all, Carrick has rarely impressed since he was humiliated by Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final.
In that respect Carrick has a crucial role to play but only if he can sustain and build on the performances of the past week. For too long and far too often Fletcher has carried his erstwhile senior partner in midfield. It is now surely time for the Geordie to repay the faith – albeit backhanded – that Ferguson has now shown.
After all, with Ferguson apparently determined to rebuild United’s central midfield next summer Carrick may again find himself marginalised or sold on unless the player’s return to form is permanent.
Should the Scot be handed substantial transfer funds as Joel Glazer apparently promised in his now infamous phone call to Wayne Rooney on 21st October, then Carrick’s role may once again be confined to the bench.
Should the Glazer family revert to type, Carrick may yet be used as the financial makeweight many expected of him last summer.