It seems as if Manchester United are stuck in an ever-existing transition period ever since Sir Alex Ferguson bid adieu to the club in 2013 and a lot of United’s old guard face a potential exit this summer.
The likes of Wayne Rooney, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones happen to be some of the those Man United players who have been at the club for a fair amount of time now but their absence this season hasn’t been felt, let’s be honest. With the purchases of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan this summer, Rooney’s position in the squad came under jeopardy as the skipper continuously draws links with other clubs. The capture of Eric Bailly and the recent emergence of Marcos Rojo as United’s most reliable centre-half has done quite the same to the injured duo of Jones and Smalling, who were tipped for greatness on acquisition by Sir Alex himself.
There is one player in the ranks though whose absence is felt a lot of times, irrespective of who comes or goes. The role he plays in the squad is sometimes the most vital one and that’s just the kind of a player and character that 35-year-old Michael Carrick is- one of a kind. Without the experienced Tynesider, the side can struggle to operate well enough in his absence. Despite having entered a period of twilight, it doesn’t seem like twilight at all with Carrick still doing the job that he did five or five seasons ago.
His ability to sit deep, dictate play and allow the more flair players the freedom to move and attack is certainly commendable but the equilibrium and composure that that he brings to the plate has helped United a lot, especially after Paul Scholes began spending little time on the pitch. The air of assurance and the reliability that the side always has with Carrick on the pitch is certainly hard to replace. And with the midfielder’s testimonial around a month away, Carrick’s deal at Old Trafford runs out at the end of the campaign. Even if he does pen a new contract, Jose Mourinho would be wise enough to realise that he needs to be replaced.
And due to that, there’s hardly been any shortage of players who have been linked with moves to United, especially after the sales of Morgan Schneiderlin to Everton and that of Bastian Schweinsteiger to MLS outfit Chicago Fire. The likes of Marco Verratti and Anderlecht youngster Youri Tielemans are just some of the those names who have been associated with United, but it’d be fair to say that the solution to the imminent problem lies well within United’s side. And it comes in the form of the Red Devils’ reliable Dutchman – Daley Blind.
It does come as a bit of a surprise to see the former Ajax star not play a regular role in affairs, despite being the most versatile player that United currently have. Having made more than 30 appearances in all competitions, Blind has been utilised either at left back or in the central defence by Mourinho, who has often played him ahead of Luke Shaw and Matteo Darmian. With the recent impressive showings of the duo of Rojo and Bailly at centre-half, Blind has had to stay content with a spot on the bench. As surprising as it sounds though, he hasn’t been used in the midfield even once since the 2014-15 campaign.
Blind was one of United’s most impressive performers that season and had played in the defensive midfield in 20 outings for the club, apart from playing in the same position for Ajax under Frank de Boer before having arrived for a £13.8 million fee. And apart from that season, Blind had operated in the same 23 times in the 2013-14 season for the Amsterdam based club, playing at left-back in the rest of the games. And it was at the end of season that Blind was handed the Dutch Footballer of the Year accolade by the KNVB.
If that isn’t enough to prove that the defensive midfield is actually Blind’s best position on the pitch, then the fact that United didn’t miss Carrick one bit when the Dutchman operated in his position certainly proves that. It obviously goes without saying that he has done quite well at left-back as well, but playing as the sole man in the deeper midfield allows him the initiative to dictate play more than it does at left-back.
He sits in front of the back four or back three and offers the defenders a reliable shield of assurance. Much like Carrick, neither is he a massive physical specimen nor is he a fierce tackler, but it’s Blind positioning and footballing brain that makes him special. His intelligence and style of play has previously drawn comparisons with the great Philipp Lahm himself. You won’t see Blind do something too special, but he just does the essential things in a slick, no-nonsense manner. And as we have witnessed a number of times already, he’s got a well-weighted, impeccable diagonal ball up his sleeve too. Adding to all that, Blind made 2.3 tackles and 3.2 interceptions during the 2014-15 campaign, so he’s got all the attributes needed to succeed in the Carrick-type role.
The way he distributes passes allows the side to function and attack with more venom and freedom. He had a passing percentage of 88 percent in the 14-15 season and seemed like the most viable alternative to the injured Carrick, who could made only 18 league starts.
The most obvious argument against Blind playing in the deeper midfield would be that Mourinho usually prefers physically robust players in that area – be it Sami Khedira at Real Madrid or Nemanja Matic and Claude Makelele at Chelsea. But it all comes down to how he has been dealing with that issue this season and his reliance on Carrick suggests that the former Inter boss has become flexible enough to fiddle with the old habit of his.
He could well have gone for someone like Radja Nainggolan, Grzegorz Krychowiak or maybe Matic himself, but he stuck to Carrick and playing Paul Pogba alongside him. And Pogba most impressive patch of form this season came about when playing alongside the ageing midfield maestro, who is immobile yet supremely effective in handing Pogba the license to dominate games.
Honestly speaking, it’ll be interesting to see whether Carrick stays at the club that he has served for 11 years now but what will be more intriguing is how he will be replaced and whether Blind can become that man.