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Is Carrick United’s 'weakest link' or the essential cog?

Solve this riddle: Manchester United win more games with Michael Carrick in the team, yet when he does play the midfielder is identified by many as a weak link

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Solve this riddle: Manchester United win more games with Michael Carrick in the team, yet when he does play the midfielder is identified by many as a weak link. When he’s missing United statically lose more often, but not necessarily because Carrick isn’t playing. So why exactly do Man Utd win more games with the midfielder in the starting lineup? This is the Carrick conundrum.

Saturday’s defeat to West Brom provided the perfect microcosm of this puzzle. United suffered a surprise 1-0 home defeat, but would the result and performance have been any different had Carrick played? From a tactical perspective, no. And yet by the rules of averages, Louis Van Gaal’s side probably would have taken at least a point.

At Old Trafford the Baggies sat deep - as so many teams do - inviting pressure on top of themselves, as if daring United to break down their packed defensive line. It worked, with the hosts failing to notch for the third successive match as they toiled to create much in the way of clear goal scoring opportunities.

Short in creativity

Of course, such a strategy requires a degree of fortune to succeed - which West Brom got through Chris Brunt’s deflected, free kick winner - but West Brom became just the latest team to hold United at arm’s length, exposing the Red Devils’ deficiency at breaking down opposition sides. When faced with such tasks Man Utd are desperately short in creativity.

Manchester United's Robin van Persie, upper right, is tackled by West Bromwich Albion's Gareth McAuley during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Saturday, May 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Manchester United's Robin van Persie, upper right, is tackled by West Bromwich Albion's Gareth McAuley during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England, Saturday, May 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

In this sense - when faced with such a task - whether Carrick plays or not makes very little difference. As the anchor at the base of midfield, he rarely strides within 25 yards of goal, instead spraying passes from deep to others - who are trusted with taking the ball farther up the pitch and closer to goal. Carrick - who has just two assists in two years to his name - is not a source of invention, but rather a basis for it.

As far as distinguished midfield pass-masters go, Carrick is decidedly limited. He cannot boast the technical ability of Xavi, or the long-range vision of Xabi Alonso - and certainly not the physical presence of Nemanja Matic

Graham Ruthven

So is it mere coincidence that the four-match winning streak - against Spurs, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Man City - preceding Carrick’s calf injury has been following by a run of three straight defeats? Can such a change of fortune at such a time be considered nothing more than a peculiar quirk?

‘Mr. Indispensable’

This is the quandary that comes with any discussion of Carrick’s importance to Man Utd. Van Gaal calls him ‘Mr. Indispensable’ and the statistics vindicate the midfielder’s nickname - Man Utd win 78 percent of games with him involved, as opposed to just 35 percent without. But given the simplicity of Carrick’s role, why can’t anyone else perform it in his absence?

Against West Brom Ander Herrera was used as the deepest-lying midfielder, but the Spaniard found it difficult to suppress his inherent attacking instinct. Daley Blind played there in the defeat to Everton the previous week, yet the Dutch left back-turned-midfielder was too fluid to provide United’s attack with a stable platform.

Carrick’s teammates simply seem more comfortable with the 33-year-old as the short-passing midfield anchor. The England international gives the likes of Herrera, Juan Mata, Marouane Fellaini and perhaps most significantly Wayne Rooney the freedom needed for United’s attack to prosper, liberating them of their structural duties.

Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic celebrates at the end of the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Saturday, April 18, 2015. Chelsea won the match 1-0. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic celebrates at the end of the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Manchester United at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Saturday, April 18, 2015. Chelsea won the match 1-0. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

As far as distinguished midfield pass-masters go, Carrick is decidedly limited. He cannot boast the technical ability of Xavi, or the long-range vision of Xabi Alonso - and certainly not the physical presence of Nemanja Matic. Running towards his own goal, the United man can also be something of a liability.

Such acclaim must be taken as narcissistic tribalism, though. Carrick is nowhere close to the standard of someone like Scholes, but that’s not to say his importance to Man Utd should be downplayed

Graham Ruthven

Coming up short

Look at the way in which Carrick cheaply conceded possession inside his own half against Liverpool last month, leading to Daniel Sturridge’s second-half goal. The mistake was ultimately immaterial - given Man Utd’s 2-1 win at Anfield - but it was reflective of how Carrick often undermines his own positional importance.

There has been mistakes in high-profile clashes against Man City, Chelsea and Champions League ties in years gone by, with Man Utd’s already fragile back four left unprotected all too frequently in the big games. Against a higher standard of opposition Carrick often comes up short.

His brief is an undeniably important one for United. However, it’s not that Carrick is the ideal option for Van Gaal to have in such a position, rather the only one. The Dutchman is awash with technically adept attacking midfielders, but nobody - other than Carrick - that can play as a central anchor.

United fans frequently sing about the similarities between Carrick and Paul Scholes - the finest midfielders ever to have played at Old Trafford. “It’s hard to believe it’s not Scholes, it’s Carrick - you know,” the song goes, to the tune of Pilot’s Magic.

Such acclaim must be taken as narcissistic tribalism, though. Carrick is nowhere close to the standard of someone like Scholes, but that’s not to say his importance to Man Utd should be downplayed. Carrick, as Van Gaal insists, is indeed indispensable - even if nobody seems sure why.