Carrick: Strictly NOT a box-to-box midfielder, since 1999.
If one was asked to compile a list of European football’s most successful passers at present, the king of the metrognomes at Barcelona would surely top most of those compilations. Behind Xavi, who next then? Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta surely wouldn’t be too far behind. Maybe Xabi Alonso? The ageing magician Andre Pirlo, too; surely he’d make an appearance. But let’s look closer to home.
Presuming that it’d be a midfielder at a top five club with the highest average pass rate per game in the Premier League, you’d be looking at who, exactly? Santi Cazorla? David Silva? Juan Mata? Yaya Toure? Mikel Arteta? All good shouts, indeed, the last two are in fact third and fourth, respectively, on the Whoscored.com list of average passes per game as of today, January 14*.
But it is the man fifth on the list on whom the attention for this piece will rest. He’s 31 now. And has a mere 26 England caps to his name since making his debut against Mexico in a friendly way back in 2001. He is the highest-placed Englishman on the list and is perhaps only now finally putting uncertainty about his ability behind him. Whisper it but he may just be England’s answer to Sergio Busquets.
Michael Carrick has always divided opinion. He’s either been a perennially underrated yet vital cog in the United midfield over the years or else a man who merely thrives on a three-yard sideways pass like a lanky, follically-endowed Ray Wilkins, depending on your viewpoint. But this season, the penny seems to have dropped and Carrick’s contribution is now being rightly lauded. His latest performance, against Liverpool, was majestic. Carrick patrolled the midfield expertly, dictating play from deep with consistently perfectly weighted passes. It is this role for whom the plaudits are markedly fewer than for those making the play further up the field, considering the relative lack of acclaim surrounding Busquets.
What does appear to be a running theme is that the conductors of the world’s best midfields are no spring chickens. Of the top six players on the aforementioned Whoscored.com table, four are over 30 (Xavi [33 at the end of the month], Arteta , Carrick  and Pirlo ) while Yaya Toure is 29. Only Busquets is a relative novice yet he’s already made over 130 appearances for Barcelona and a further 51 for his country. He’s won a few pots as well. Of these, the most plaudits lie at the doors of Xavi, Pirlo and Toure, but Carrick has quietly side-stepped concerns that he was too conservative in his play, shining in a midfield that has grown in confidence and competence as the season has gone on.
Very much like Busquets, Carrick is the sort of player greatly appreciated by his teammates. These individuals are often not the ones to adorn the back of replica shirts, being banded in the bin marked ‘Onion’ rather than the lavish fruit bowl labelled ‘Apple’. But time and time again, they will start off a goal-scoring move without applying the final assist. It is for that reason that they rarely win awards, given the penchant at Sky for showboating and sound bites and the lack of points available in Fantasy Football for just being bloody good at passing.
In a different way to Carrick, Busquets lacks the praise his talent deserves in England, certainly. Most probably this is due to his histrionics in the tackle (or not as the case may be) – his sneaky ‘peekaboo’ against Inter Milan in getting Thiago Motta sent off in 2010 was deplorable after all.
However, perhaps the greatest accolade a Barcelona player can receive is the praise of a true club legend, Johan Cruyff. The Dutchman has said of Busquets: "He is a gift for any coach. The speed of his passing is perfect and he is the kind of player you don't need to explain anything to. You just put him in his position and he performs."
His worth to Barcelona is discernible most markedly in the mammoth £130m buy-out clause inserted into the Spaniard’s latest contract extension signed in 2011. For both the distribution and protection that he provides, Busquets is invaluable to this current Barcelona side.
No one is for one minute suggesting that Carrick will get such a clause written into any future contract. He won’t. However, his value to United is undoubted. He not only bridges the gap between United’s defence and attack but also links the generations of midfielders around him. Tom Cleverley provided the energy against Liverpool, but in other, less intense games it’s sometimes Paul Scholes that Sir Alex Ferguson prefers. Take a player still capable of 90 minutes of energy and quality and add that to the mix and it’s little wonder that Carrick has become increasingly trusted to partner one of United’s other central midfielders as one career winds down in the form of Scholes and others continue to learn their trade. He’s been substituted just twice in 22 league matches. It is Carrick’s discipline that allows him to make best use of the ball. Unassuming. Effective.
Being the antithesis of the all-action, ‘box-to-box’ midfielder so loved by English fans and television cameras, Carrick may never enjoy the full acclaim that his talent deserves. But that doesn’t make him any less important to United’s cause. And the more performances he puts in like the one at the weekend, the more vindication he receives for his decision to snub England last year for not wanting to be a squad player. Sadly, Roy Hodgson seems not to have learnt from the many mistakes of England’s recent past, stating last May that Jordan Henderson, Carrick’s replacement, “has potential in that area, tremendous athleticism, great box-to-box ability”. Oh great Roy, just what we need. MORE athleticism and box-to-box ability.
Carrick is a bit like the designated driver or the sensible drinker on a big night out. Rarely reckless when his midfield counterparts are tearing up to the bar to get some shots in, rarely panicky or flustered when it looks like it’s all going to go wrong and someone’s going to be sick on their shoes in defence. Added to that he reads the game so well it might as well be a Magic Spongers article and he didn’t make it into Garth Crooks’ team of the week. And in a world where Gary Neville gives the man of the match award to Danny Welbeck for essentially running around a lot (a LOT), there is much to admire about United’s real engine.
*, click Average Pass tab at the top to see the list.
">Stats can be found here