Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Rolls Royce that turned into a Ford Focus

Good old Michael Carrick. Few players split opinion like him.

On the one hand, there are those who believe he is, or could be, the grand conductor of the English game - a Geordie Alonso, the Wallsend Pirlo, the Molby of the Tyne. Those who love him do genuinely believe that if only he had a Spanish passport he would be treated as a genius of the modern game.

On the other hand, there are those who believe, at best, he is a nothing player. The sort of player carried to league titles by the excellence around him. They note that it is easy to look good in a winning team. He is, to them, a luxury player. The sort of player who was acceptable in the thrilling boom years but no longer welcome in austerity Britain. They wish he had a Spanish passport.

Those who love him over-rate him to make up for all the opprobrium he faces.

I veer towards the former - I am a fan - but this excoriating piece by Alexander Netherton got me thinking. Carrick was, for a time, a better midfielder than England knew we had. Now he probably is at the standard his critics have always thought. 

He has been, as Netherton notes, United's best midfielder over the last few years but that is clearly no longer the case. In the build-up to the 2009 Champions League Final he was superlative. His passing range the envy of all bar Scholes in England. He seemed to stroll through games with pomp, circumstance and composure. He was a Rolls Royce engine in a Rolls Royce team (there is an argument to say the 2008-2009 United team was Ferguson's finest vintage).

In those heady days when bloggers didn't need a maths degree to understand stats, and before most of us were banging on about hoarders, Carrick was a hoarder. In the season building up to that career-defining match against Barcelona his performances made those who noticed draw breath. Many fans asked what he did. His fellow players, and manager, asked what didn't he do?

In that season alone, he attempted, and completed, more passes than any other Premier League footballer that season. He covered more ground than most players and was one of the leaders in interception. Fewer goals were conceded when he was in the team. Simply, he won the ball and when he got it he used it effectively.

More than that, as Martin Jol noted at the time, he was the man who dictated United's tempo and possession. He was, in Jol's words, 'the man who can turn defence into attack'. He seemed to always have the ball at his feet and, promptly, the ball would be delivered to someone else - usually one of the galacticos that littered the late noughties United side: Ronaldo, Tevez and Rooney.

Some footballers are defined by one match and Carrick is one of them. The problem for Carrick is that unlike most who have such games the game that defines him is one where he was destroyed. Gerrard will always have that sunlit afternoon against West Ham. Beckham will have that one-man game against Greece. Keane will have that hypnotic performance against Juventus. Carrick will always have Barcelona. The very word will haunt the man's dreams.

There is no shame in being outclassed by Xavi and Iniesta - plenty of fine players have been treated in a similar manner. The problem for Carrick is that his humiliation was on the grandest stage and was total. All the fine performances beforehand and all the fine performances since will always be caveated with 'aye, but remember Barcelona'. Like a cat with a mouse, the two Spaniards toyed with him and destroyed him. He was over-run, eclipsed, d
iscombobulated and broken. 

Indeed, increasingly, Carrick's performance that night is becoming typical. The days when he had Fletcher or Scholes purring beside him and dervishes like Rooney, Ronaldo and Tevez ahead of him are gone. The days when he shone are gone.

The players next to him aren't what they were. The players ahead of him are or can be, in my view, world-class but they aren't quite clicking yet for myriad reasons.

Those moves where he took the ball from the centre backs and pinged sweeping balls to jet-heeled wingers don't seem to occur any more. The ground covered isn't as vast. The interceptions, once so subtle they went unnoticed, are now galling in their absence. The carousel passing which Carrick and Scholes orchestrated has packed up and gone into storage.

Those who viewed him as a luxury player a few years back were wrong. There are some players who take a fine team and make it better but who cannot pull plodders along. Consider Mascherano's travails at West Ham United and his subsequent excellence alongside Alonso and Gerrard at Liverpool. Mascherano wasn't a luxury player but he needed brilliance around him to bring out the brilliance in him. Carrick is such a player. The problem for him, and United, is his decline has accelerated (and been accentuated by) the departure of class players and a world-class manager.

Both Ferguson and Moyes have tried to find partners for him of the highest quality. They have failed. He needs a class partner soon either at United or somewhere else. If we want an Indian summer to a fine career we should hope he finds that partner.



Andy Brown said...

Very interesting take Rob.

As a Utd fan who has seen Carrick live over the past year many times, I can tell you that he has been in many ways our most important player, giving people like RVP and Rooney the tools to shine. Outside Old Trafford the talk is no longer of why is Carrick playing but almost exclusively what will we do with out him.

In terms of him being a luxury player - is any player truly a luxury? In a specific system or style Carrick could be seen as pivotal to success. Yes he has played the majority of his time at Utd with great players alongside him but if anything we are seeing with Utd's inconsistency in his absence just how important he is

In tactically tight games he comes into his own as his ability to control possession shines through. Football is increasingly about controlling space as well as the ball and again in this regard the interceptions and positioning that Carrick employs shows him to be adept in this area.

As for his international career, he has been neglected much like Scholes. Imagine Carrick holding whilst Gerrard, Lampard at el caused damage further forward. The inability of multiple England managers to see this is incredible. Im not saying we would have won a tournament but we may have been better equipped to progress.

As I say I may be biased wing a Utd fan, but the evidence borne out in stats and from rival fans like yourself suggests my view could be valid.

Great post. Love reading your posts. Always thought provoking.

JuhanL said...

I’m sensing that your post isn’t really about Carrick, but about United not being the force they were a few years ago. And that Carrick is getting criticized for it as he is supposed to lead them in this way and you don’t really agree.

Like yourself I’m a big admirer of what he does. In the third paragraph from the end you seem to have ended with a conclusion that he isn’t the player he was. I don’t really agree. The players he is playing with are just poorer versions of what he had ahead of him a few years ago. Valencias injury robbed him of his pace, Rooney and RVP have been out for a large chunk of the season, he doesn’t have a solid midfielder next to him, Young is no Ronaldo nor is he even close to the injured Nani. And the others – well, they’re fine players, but clearly not as good as the ones he had in front of him in most games in the past seasons.

I’d say everyone around him has declined. Except for Rafael, Rooney and RVP. But all three have suffered injuries this season and its been stop-start for them.

Carrick as a luxury-player – well, the term usually means that a forward doesn’t track back or neglects some part of responsibilities that his position/role should have in a given formation. I think Carrick contributes exactly whats expected of him. I think that mr Netherton is expecting him to do a different job in midfield that he is really asked to do. I think thats the issue with quite a few writers – they have a blueprint of what someone should do and if they don’t do that, then the player should change so that they would do exactly as is expected, otherwise they’re poor in some way. I don’t agree with that logic at all. I think thats a problem for the manager – he has to use his team in such a way that it masks the shortcomings of players if at all possible. And all players have shortcomings. Some are good at multiple things, some are great at one. But mr Netherton seems to expect that when the rest of United is failing then Carrick should take over their duties. Thats not a reasonable expectation. Evaluating a player should be done based on what the expectations are of him and his role in the team and comparing that to reality.

dearieme said...

Is someone a good teacher? It depends on what you ask him to teach and to whom. Ditto for a footballer I suppose: what do you want him to do, and in what company?

elliott said...

As the owner of a Ford Focus and fan of Carrick, I pretty much agree with this article 100%. He's a good player, not a luxury, but he really only links up well with exceptional teammates - he doesn't lift up average players to be beter.

Anonymous said...

It's not just Barcelona though, it's been a number of performances over the years - and I think you can draw from this what Carrick needs to shine and also why it's a problem for Man Utd.

Carrick plays in the "holding" spot - and he's good at interception (or was.) What a number of opponents worked out is the best way to deal with that is to run at him with the ball. And everyone has their internal showreel of Carrick being bypassed in this way.

All of this is exacerbated by the evolution of formations that often leave the holding midfielder as the last line of defence - all the more so because Utd have that attacking heritage.

Throw in the fundamental decline of the defenders behind him and Carrick is needing much more often to make tackles - and that not only isn't his strength, but every time he does make a last ditch tackle he's no longer as quickly in position to spark a counter attack.

So, to shine, what Carrick needs is an actual defensive midfield partner - or a Ferdinand in his prime CB behind him.

On the attack: There's another word for the long, raking passes to the wingers - it comes up a lot in criticism of Gerrard - "Hollywood" passes. Here's where I agree with you - what makes the success of this kind of game is as much the guy on the end of the pass as anything. (Imagine de Boer's iconic pass with Wellbeck or Ashley Young on the end of it…)

And of course, the lack of an attacking central midfielder to take the ball - a Scholes perhaps - when the wingers are covered…

Still, while I can envision how Carrick was successful (and thus could be again) I think it's fair to point out that few teams set up that way - I do think that he hasn't adapted his game the way Pirlo did to tactical evolutions. I'd add that he doesn't have Alonso's defensive quality - maybe Molby is the best comparison - like Molby maybe, his time is past.

dearieme said...

Mr Rogers has turned a Ford Focus into an (intermittent) Rolls Royce.

dearieme said...

Will ManU hire Rodgers to replace Moyes?

dearieme said...

Good points about Carrick: is Mata another who can thrive in a good side but not in a mediocre one?

Jamie Oliver said...

Hah really good compare! Carrick is amazing player with no doubt!

dearieme said...

I saw poor old Torres briefly lumbering about the pitch this evening: The Rolls Royce that turned into a Ford Edsel.