Paul Scholes coming out of retirement was a shock but on reflection not that much of a shock when you consider the midfield conundrum that has proved to be such a tough one to solve in recent years for Sir Alex, particularly so this season with illness and injury blighting the midfield ranks. But even before Scholes decided his legs hadn’t gone after all, thereby providing a golden sticking plaster in midfield, a certain number 16 for United had been making his presence felt in the midfield after a couple of seasons of relative stagnation.
Step forward Michael Carrick, or rather the Michael Carrick United fans remember prior to the first Champions League final/ footballing lesson at the hands of Barcelona which clearly knocked the Geordie’s confidence and had a detrimental effect on his form. As a self-confessed Carrick doubter, his form this season has been heartening to say the least.
What we’ve witnessed this season is the resurgence of a player who on his day draws praise from the likes of Xavi Hernandez: “Carrick gives United balance and can play defensively too. He passes well, has a good shot and is a complete player”. Another Spanish midfield maestro in the shape of Xabi Alonso was similarly effusive about Carrick “Michael Carrick is a player who makes those around him play, regardless of the fact that maybe he is not the player that shines the most individually”. With the relative chaos in the backline thanks to the catalogue of injuries and the uncertainties surrounding the goalkeeping situation, Carrick brought much needed calm and stability to the midfield. Of course he’s not Superman and he can’t be expected to do it all on his own, but he must now surely be one of the first names on the United team sheet. It was interesting to see how well the combination of Carrick and Jones worked in midfield recently, a genuine blend of energy and running coupled with composed, accurate ‘keep ball’ passing. And it’s been even more interesting seeing how the midfield faired when Carrick and Scholes were paired up against Liverpool and Stoke. One thing that was evident was that the ball retention was excellent, but without Rooney the penetration in the final third was virtually non-existent at Anfield against a stubborn backline.
Therein lies the problem for Sir Alex – in Scholes and Carrick the team possesses two of the best passers in the league but neither operates in the areas that cause the opposition defences too many headaches – this may explain the rumoured move for Dinamo Zagreb’s talented young starlet Mateo Kovacic (which supposedly didn’t happen because the Glazer’s weren’t willing to sanction the £10,000,000 needed for the move). Rumours that United are looking at Martinez and Eriksen may just be the usual mischievous unsettling tactics that have cropped up prior to playing other European sides this season (Gaitan at Benfica, Shaqiri at Basel), but it’s clear United are in need of a player with that bit of spark and invention to complement the more orthodox midfielders at the club, particularly given the attempts to sign Nasri and Sneijder last summer.
In the absence of a schemer in the final third, United benefit from midfielders like Jones driving at the opposition, breaking beyond the defence creating space and opportunities for others. Carrick offers the team that midfield shield to balance this approach, sorely missed earlier in the season when teams were getting bundles of shots on goal in the stats columns whilst United seemingly operated the “we’re going to score one more than you” policy. But make no mistake, Carrick isn’t a Makele type player, albeit his positional sense and timing are a joy to behold at times – he does need a player alongside him against the better sides who is capable of getting though a tremendous amount of work – Jones is one such option and it will be very interesting to see if Cleverley, a player who is full of energy and drive but also offers neat and incisive passing, gets the chance to form a partnership with Carrick. The long awaited Premier League debut of Paul Pogba against Stoke, another youngster labelled as not only a contract rebel, but also (incorrectly) as the ‘new Vieira’, could also offer the sort of foil needed to complement the resurgent Carrick.
Maybe Carrick isn’t the answer, but he is increasingly becoming an answer that goes some way towards addressing the midfield conundrum at United.
Mark Thatcher @mistertea75