How Michael Carrick is really rather good at football

Michael Carrick after reading this article

Michael Carrick is very good at football. It might seem like an obvious statement, given that he has played most games for one of the top three most successful teams in the world for the last four-and-a-half seasons, but you won’t find many who share this view. Carrick has been accused of, amongst other things, regression, lack of creativity, timidness, and lacking the ability to impose himself on games, particularly away from home. Why then does the greatest manager of all time continue to trust in him?

It is evident from watching United this season that Michael Carrick has been transformed into a holding midfielder. Whilst this may be obvious to people watching United week in and week out, others continue to judge Carrick based on the standards of a more attacking player, i.e. the Carrick of 2006-2008. Carrick 2.0 is charged specifically if not entirely with gaining, and then keeping possession.

It is a task Carrick is extremely good, nay, brilliant at. He can boast the highest amount of interceptions for a midfielder in the Premier League, at a staggering rate of 4.38 per game (Anderson 1.90, Scholes 1.82, Fletcher 1.54, Gibson 0.95). He can also boast the highest pass success ratio of any regular starting midfielder (i.e. 50% or more games) in the league, completing 780 out of 898 attempted passes for a success rate of 86.9%. Critics will inevitably accuse him of passing only backwards and sideways, but an examination of his chalkboards will show you that he passes conclusively forward (that is anything more than a couple of yards up the field) about 40% of the time.

Carrick has also demonstrated his enormous importance to United’s defensive. He has started 14 of the Red’s 27 league games this season. In those 14 games, they have conceded 8 goals. Of the 13 games he didn’t start, they conceded 15 goals. So this season, when Carrick plays United concede, on average 0.57 goals, and when he doesn’t, they concede 1.15. Ferguson’s boys havw also conceded 2 goals or more in 7 games this season – 5 of those were games Carrick didn’t play in.

The inevitable response when putting forth such figures is “I don’t need the stats, I know what I see with my own eyes”. Resisting the urge to make the obvious Mike Summerbee reference (and yet I just did), is that nearly every naked eye spectator is an imperfect judge. During a match someone will have their eye on any number of things and scenarios, may not be fully concentrating at points.

To digress a touch, but still generally concerning Carrick, using a real-life example, I was watching the Arsenal game in December in the pub with my mate. Arsenal were on the attack. Fabregas attempted to thread through a pass and Carrick intercepted it. The ball fell to Anderson who gave it away. Nasri lofted it into the area and Carrick headed away. About 30 seconds later van Persie shot and Carrick blocked. The ball bounced around a bit, and Carrick attempted a pass forward which didn’t find its target. My mate went on a rant about how rubbish Carrick was and how he offered nothing. I asked him had he seen any of Carrick’s contributions in the past minute. He said no. I asked him had he not seen his interception, his header and his block. He said he didn’t.

Now, I’m not trying to diss my mate and say he’s terrible at analysing football. What I’m saying is that it’s extremely difficult to notice and indeed remember all the little bits of a football game.  When Carrick intercepted, my mate might have been thinking that he hadn’t seen too much of Fabregas tonight. When Carrick headed clear he might have been shouting that someone was offside. When Carrick blocked he might have been thinking how powerful a shot van Persie has, or he may have briefly looked away, or he might have been looking at the screen but not really looking, which happens to the best of us.

However when a player makes a mistake, it tends to be obvious. The commentator will usually note it and it will be obvious as it will usually result in a switch in possession. A couple of mistakes could be made in a 5 minute period and someone will think to themselves that a player is having a shocker. This could fly in the face of several decent things that player has done in the game, or indeed go on to do, but it’ll stick in the mind. It’s here when stats come in useful.

Someone can say to me, “God, Carrick gave the ball away so much tonight”. As indeed happened after the derby in November, when his pass success rate was ridiculously high, which is what I countered with. Now, in a situation like against Marseille, it would be foolish to argue that Carrick’s passing was good simply because he had the best passing stats of our midfield. This is because a) they were still very low compared to what he normally achieves and b) it was noticeable that his forward passing was poor.

People often assess performances before a game is over as well and fail to account for improvements as a game wears on. I thought Carrick had an extremely decent last 25 against Marseille for example, no coincidence that this also occurred when Paul Scholes was also on the pitch.

I dislike when people make rash judgements that clearly fly in the face of statistics. I also dislike when people worship the stats and refuse to budge from them when there are clearly other things to consider or mitigating factors. The best approach is to take a sensible mix of the statistics and what you saw, as well as taking into account the analysis of learned others.

Getting back to Carrick specifically, one of the biggest problem he has to contend with is the lack of appreciation of his type in England. By and large, English fans will appreciate a destroyer, a go-getter and, crudely, a blue arsed fly. It is for this reason that Darren Fletcher has not received nearly enough stick as Carrick, despite his loss of form a) actually existing and b) being quite significant. Players of the likes of Carrick and Mikel and before them Veron are lambasted as wastes of space and lazy – though Veron was actually missing form most of the time at United his contribution was severely overlooked at time. The only holding player to achieve real love from the fans in England in the last few years has been Xabi Alonso – at what was at the time a very Spanish-influenced club, Spain being the home of possession football.

At this point, we will attempt to blow another couple of Carrick myths out of the water. The first, that he doesn’t get stuck in. He attempts about the same amount of tackles as other central midfielders in the league. What’s interesting is his success rate, at a little over 50% for most of his career is touching 70% this season, making it one of the highest I’ve seen, including defenders. The second is that he is a bit lazy and dozy. Again, the statistics show otherwise. Carrick covered more distance than any other United player in 4 out of his 5 Champions League group stage starts this season. Such figures aren’t available domestically, but if the trend continues then it can be said that Carrick is out there every week running his bollocks off.

He is constantly criticised for unimaginative passing, but to do so is to misunderstand his role. The reason he doesn’t use his range of passing is because he’s playing a different position than he used to. He can’t afford as many risky passes as he used to take on because if he misses them possession is lost in a dangerous area of the pitch.

I accept to an extent the sense of frustration that he’s clearly got a lot more in his locker than we see on the pitch but think of it as a necessary evil. The difference between how well we retain possession with Carrick as opposed to without is evident. Every pass doesn’t need to be incisive. The better a team retains possession, the more the opposition tire and the more the gaps open up. Not that he’s not still capable of passing teams to death – he’s done it this year for example against Rangers (107/117 passes), and Blackburn (88/95).

Carrick passing chalkboard v Blackburn (click to expand, and you can also admire all my lovely tabs)

“Invisible”. “Nothing player”. “Shit”. All words regularly used to describe Carrick by the no-nothing neanderthals of football. He was the lone major signing in 2006 for Manchester United,who then proceeded to win their first league title in three years. And then another. And another. And a European Cup. And another final. A couple of Carling Cups too. Terrific as a relatively advanced playmaker from 2006 to mid-2009, Carrick’s form digressed in 09/10, and three brilliant seasons were forgotten in an instant. Good thing Fergie knows better. He’s gradually been transformed from that advanced position into a holding midfield role, and has turned into one of the finest players in that position, with an extraordinarily high pass success rate, the highest amount of interceptions in the league, underrated tackle success and extremely good work ethic.

Maybe, just maybe, if United win a 4th title in 5 years with Carrick playing a major if never quite starring role, the song that sums him up so well will blast out from the Stretford End: “He can pass, tackle, head, Michael Carrick is a Red.” And United fans should hope that’s the case for another few years yet.


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