“I changed Herrera because I wanted to waste time – what Swansea were doing the whole match,” admitted Louis van Gaal after his side’s 2-1 defeat of the Swans. Manchester United’s was a welcome, if nervy victory on Saturday, but lost among all that was the fact that Michael Carrick, the Spaniard’s replacement, was making his 400th appearance for the club.
In a sense it was a fittingly understated way to reach the milestone for a player way whose quiet efficiency has come to define his game. Carrick’s contribution over the years may pass by the casual viewer, but among his peers the graduate of the Wallsend Boys Club is lauded as a footballer’s footballer. Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Xabi Alonso have spoken about Carrick in glowing terms claiming that he wouldn’t have been out-of-place in the Spanish national side.
It’s to Carrick’s detriment that the Geordie didn’t fulfill the archetypal attributes of a traditional English midfielder and hence his qualities were underrepresented in the international game. The midfielder’s thoughtful passing has often been overlooked for players who could show more Hollywood balls in their highlights reel.
Those who have played alongside Carrick, who was signed from Tottenham Hotspur in 2006, have been more than ready to sing his praises.
“He is not a flash footballer. He doesn’t hit Hollywood passes. He doesn’t score lots of goals. But I loved playing alongside him. He was always in the right place. He gave me license to play,” confessed Paul Scholes.
Gary Neville once likened United’s number 16 to a piano, because of his soothing influence, often demonstrated in Carrick’s outstanding defensive influence on the side.
“It’s not rocket science,” as Neville observed of Carrick’s approach, but nonetheless there’s much to admire about the minimalist effectiveness of his game. If anything it shows the playing intelligence that the midfielder possesses and how Carrick’s style can subtly influence matches.
Combine that with a range of incisive passing and, in Carrick, United has enjoyed a near complete ‘footballing’ midfielder for the past decade. For someone who can strike the ball so cleanly his goal record can be found wanting, but then again United’s number 16, at his pomp and beyond, is far more comfortable facilitating glory for others than grabbing it himself.
It’s no surprise that United’s form petered out at the end of last season when Carrick was sidelined with injury from April until the close of the 2014/15 campaign.
This season is a different story. Carrick, 34, has featured in all five of United’s league defeats this season. He may have the extra yard in his head, but increasingly the player’s legs appear to be two behind. With Carrick’s contract expiring in the summer there’s no guarantee that the club will take him on as a player for a further year. Age and time is catching up even if the brain is still as sharp as ever.
Though Carrick’s playing days may be coming to an end there could and should be room for him on the coaching staff at United. Carrick, forward thinking as ever, started taking coaching courses five years ago as he aims to earn the badges that will allow him to take the next steps in his career. By 2014 Carrick was deep into studying the UEFA B Licence and The Future Game – the FA Technical Guide for Young Player Development.
“I’m really interested in coaching,” he once said. “Maybe not even at the top-level, maybe Academy kids or in the youth team.”
Judging by the way Carrick plays he has a nuanced understanding of the game. There is an approach to football and a general demeanour that suggests an individual who has a lot to give long after the boots have been hung up.
Further, at a time of great change, United could benefit greatly by retaining players who tasted success and have not just adopted, but contributed to the club’s identity. Indeed, prior to Van Gaal’s recent troubles, the Dutchman was reportedly eager to set-up a similar structure as that used at Ajax, where former playing stars were drafted into the coaching team to retain and build on the club’s identity.
It’s not a stretch to think that Carrick’s calm, methodical approach will translate well onto the coaching pitches at Carrington, and that he could usher in an era where former players play a central role in the development of the club. Van Gaal once noted that Carrick – his “second captain” – acts like a coach on the pitch.
It will certainly be the United’s loss if Carrick is swallowed into the world of football punditry, though that would probably be to the gain of the television audience.
Bringing Carrick into the coaching set-up may not be a blockbuster move. Certainly not as spectacular as his strikes against Roma in United’s 7-1 drubbing of the Italian side in 2007. But, in an era of short-term thinking, including the 34-year old in the coaching structure would be an intelligent if understated move by the club. Much like Carrick’s game.