Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson recently conceded on the club’s pre-season tour of Asia that the current squad has a few ‘issues’ which need addressing, namely in the central midfield area, but the way in which he spoke about Michael Carrick and his importance to the side this season just further highlight what a pivotal figure he is at Old Trafford these days – with that in mind, has he been cruelly underrated in the past?
The main criticism often levelled at Carrick is that he often lets big games pass him by, and he appeared to fall out of favour with Ferguson in the aftermath of the 2009 Champions League final where he was given the runaround by Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets in midfield. You could call it something of an English fascination that we expect our players to run all day long while being destructive in the tackle and graft is almost always rated higher than craft, with Carrick the latest in a long line of players to have fallen foul of this common misconception.
Ferguson waxed lyrical last week about the Geordie, stating: “In the modern day game, you don’t need tacklers the same way you used to. There’s no call for it. It’s about anticipation and reading the game. The refereeing is also of such a standard now that you can hardly tackle anyone, so that sort of thing isn’t the same issue as it used to be. Carrick can read the game and also play in front of the back four. If you look at the central midfielders in the Premier League, he can match up against any of them in terms of quality – the likes of Modric, Yaya Toure, those are probably the best central midfielders and Gerrard. I think Carrick is the key to it. He did really well in second half of last season and I think he’s going to be the key man.
“Scholes and Giggs will obviously play their part and Tom Cleverley hopefully, as well as Anderson if he keeps fit. They will all play a part but for me Carrick is the key player. But we do have an issue in central midfield, there is no doubt about that because getting a Scholes or a Carrick is very difficult these days. By the time he gets to December he starts playing consistently well, but he had a really good end to last season, so he’s the key to us.”
While Paul Scholes was equally effusive in his praise with: “Over the last six years at the club he’s been terrific, one of the most underrated players that the Premier League has had. Since he’s come we’ve won the league in all but one season – that says it all. You need players such as Michael to be successful. He’s a total team player, which players around him really appreciate. I’ve always found him very easy to play with. He’s capable of doing anything. He can create goals, score goals, he’s a great passer of the ball and is a big strong lad with a lot of presence who can run all day long. Michael is a different breed to the likes of Roy and Nicky Butt. They were brilliant, but so is Michael in a different way. He brings calmness to the game and parades around the pitch like a Rolls-Royce.”
Yet the stigma persists over his perceived ability in big, pressure-cooking games and his lack of assertiveness is often maligned and used as a stick to beat him with. He’s usually used as a convenient scapegoat when things aren’t going according to plan, much the same way Darron Gibson, John O’Shea and for a time, Darren Fletcher were before him.
You can’t argue with Ferguson’s estimation that he is an integral player for the club next season as the side continues to show a worrying reliance on both Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, despite both entering the twilight of their respective careers. This becomes even more true when you account for the long-term fitness concerns over both Anderson and Tom Cleverley.
I don’t often buy into the argument that just because a manager has been successful in the past, that you can’t criticise him in the present, but the fact that Ferguson has entrusted Carrick to be a first-team regular during his six-year stay at Old Trafford, a period of great success both home and abroad, has to be worth something at least. He has been a regular during the four title triumphs and had an excellent game against Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final victory.
Carrick can at times lack penetration, incisiveness and the ability to physically impose himself on the opposition, but nowhere near to the extent that he is criticised for and his game is often held up to the sort of scrutiny not usually reserved for most players. He retains the ability to dictate the tempo from deep and he completed on average, a quite superb 90.1% of his attempted passes last season, averaging 73 passes per game.
He may not be the natural heir to Roy Keane that many cried out for and you’re not likely to see him thundering into challenges any time soon either, but it’s a perverse state of affairs where we judge a player more by what they can’t do and the strengths of another player as opposed to lauding him for what he is actually good at himself. His uncanny ability to time his interceptions is as crucially important in the modern game as any eye-catching slide tackle is and the way in which he has been marginalised on the international scene has been a source of much frustration and bafflement for the club’s fans.
When players are usually hailed as being ‘underrated’, it’s normally done to such an extent by various talking heads and former pro’s that it’s little more than a cliche trotted out when they’ve got nothing more to add, so much so in fact, that in the end, they become rated pretty much level according to their ability, with Claude Makelele a prime example of this recent phenomenon – we were often told that he was an underrated member of Chelsea’s title-winning sides, but I don’t know of a single intelligent football fan that didn’t appreciate his importance on that team. Carrick, though, is definitely more of a divisive figure than the Frenchman ever was and probably always will be.
The 30 year-old always plays better with somebody beside him willing to put in the hard yards and he’s perhaps suffered as much as anyone else by Darren Fletcher’s prolonged absence from the side through illness, but that doesn’t take away what a good, sometimes exceptional player he can be. Capable of spreading the ball, playing defence-splitting long-passes and with the consistency to match, Carrick will certainly go down as one of the most underrated players currently in the top flight.
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