Michael Carrick and his family said their goodbyes to Manchester United in May. Despite appearing in 41 games in 2015-16, the England midfielder had not been offered an extension to his expiring contract by Louis van Gaal and had resigned himself to continuing his career elsewhere after 10 years at Old Trafford.
Things changed very quickly for the former Tottenham and West Ham star, with Van Gaal’s sacking and Jose Mourinho’s arrival soon paving the way for a new one-year deal. Within four weeks of the Carricks’ apparent farewells at United’s final home game of the season against Bournemouth, Michael was a Manchester United player with a future once more.
But, seven games into life under Mourinho, he is struggling to make any impact. The 35-year-old hasn’t been afforded a single minute of action since playing the first hour of the Community Shield win over Leicester City in early August. As United arrive in Northampton for Wednesday night’s EFL Cup third-round clash, the deep-lying playmaker is looking to finally end a 45-day hiatus from the field of play.
And as the 20-time English champions reflect on a week from hell which saw them go down to Manchester City, Feyenoord and Watford, the absence of a player with Carrick’s experience and savvy becomes an interesting issue as Mourinho looks to address the evident imbalance within his side that has thrown Paul Pogba’s presence under a spotlight.
Carrick’s quality has sometimes been over-stated in the past, with his ability to pick a pass highlighted ad infinitum by friends in high places. Yet, when the post-mortem began after Sunday’s defeat at Watford with the unused substitute going through some post-game stretches in view of the host TV studio, it was hard not to draw a significant line between Carrick’s absence and United’s lack of shape and swagger at present.
He may well have lost a lot of his previous mobility, and rarely makes a killer tackle when United are on the back foot, but Carrick is the club’s best option when it comes to somebody who can show real authority in the middle. At a time when Mourinho is scrambling for the right foil for Pogba, as the £89.5 million man becomes accustomed to his status as the world’s most costly player, it would appear that the Portuguese’s best option is sat behind him on the bench with a training top on.
Carrick has an innate ability to dictate the pace of a game as he sees fit, and boasts the kind of experience United are currently missing in the centre of midfield. Marouane Fellaini’s impressive start to the season has given way to a disappointing spell, but what was Mourinho expecting when asking the Belgian to play as a pivot behind Pogba and Wayne Rooney at Watford? Fellaini thrives in the channels, becoming a nuisance in the last 40 yards of the pitch, not carrying the ball from the base and picking passes from deep.
That is an area in which Carrick is at home, and while his game does not suit teams of every shape and size, it would appear he is exactly what Pogba and United need right now.
When the Frenchman has been used as one of two pivots in midfield, he has too often ended up collecting possession far too deep to have a real effect. And when used in his more natural spot on the left of a three at Vicarage Road he was robbed of any verve by the demand placed on Fellaini to be the man supplying Pogba from what was a distinctly unnatural position.
With Carrick supplying the natural shape as a pivot and delivering the ball with his calm precision, Pogba would look far more at home in United’s midfield and Mourinho’s side would take on a far more convincing shape as a whole.