By Alexander Netherton
It is not quite clear how injured Michael Carrick is. He was taken off for England against Spain with an injury, and there are conflicting, or perhaps developing, accounts. There have been reports from some that the injury is a serious ligament injury, and that it could keep him out for several months. On the other hand, the more recent news is more positive for him and Manchester United, and it could keep him out for just a couple of weeks.
Obviously, it is beneficial to United to have as many of their players available as they can, at all times. And particularly over winter, with Champions League obligations blurring into regular Premier League matches, the Christmas schedule and the start of the FA Cup third round. Louis van Gaal has, in the past, discussed using Carrick as a central defender, and to take the strain over this period, particularly against weaker teams in the cup competitions and at the bottom of the table, it would always be useful to have him around.
Similarly, he’s clearly no longer first choice in midfield - that is now Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger - he has appeared from the start on occasion, particularly when there are three games to play in a week. As well as that, if he is on the bench he is almost certain to feature at some point. Either to provide balls into the box or to run onto from deep, or to help keep possession should United need to hold onto a scoreline. His experience means he is rarely flustered.
However, last season, his experience counted for little, as he has still yet to learn how to mark players or track runners, and his obvious lack of pace highlights any errors of positioning. Similarly, this season, his ability to keep hold of the ball has waned. Nevertheless, Carrick’s form has always been subject to extremes. He has spent more than a year being absolute doggerel in the past, notably after getting the runaround by Barcelona in Rome in the Champions League final. Despite that, there have been whole seasons he has been the best midfielder in the side. Last year, the way he played - despite often being brainless - and the position he did it in, meant that he was United’s best midfielder.
Which is the remarkable thing about Carrick. So often he has been the best midfielder at United, but that is not really something to praise him for, more something to criticise United’s management for. United were desperate for a midfielder with pace, energy, the ability to lead, the ability to assist, to boot people in the behind and to score. Carrick was never any of those things, which was fine, he provided other qualities, but United still needed something more.
And so, with Sir Alex Ferguson and his stubbornness removed, and Ed Woodward chided into working out how to actually buy players in his second summer transfer window, the work started. Ander Herrera joined and ultimately proved that he was a midfielder capable of running, passing and - incredible! - scoring. The next, most recent summer saw Schneiderlin turn up, a man who could kick people if it was fair or not, and release the ball quickly to those more offensively talented. Schweinsteiger, a man who pointed with good reason and with an ability to play and think quickly, showed up Carrick’s pointing that, like Tom Cleverley, was used as a way to deflect blame onto whoever was stood nearest to him.
In the past, when Carrick was injured for United, it was a huge hinderance. There was no experienced, calm presence to stick in the middle of the pitch. For all his faults, what he gave to the team was essential because nobody else was good enough to do it. Now, it’s totally different. He is not obsolete yet, but he is approaching it. He is no longer the best veteran, no longer the best passer, no longer the most experienced player in the midfield, and no longer the player that a manager feels is most reliable. Carrick’s injury is still a problem, and after Schweinsteiger there is no natural replacement for his role, but United can be thankful that finally his absence is nothing more than an annoyance, rather than a serious blow.