Michael Carrick: Elevated to Greatness?
Michael Carrick is not Paul Scholes.
Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, knows that they are different players, playing different roles. Now the fans see that, and he has become a favorite at Old Trafford.
When Carrick is on the ball and an opposition player approaches there is the inevitable cry of "man on," interspersed with "get rid of it!"
But this season the Stretford End has a new song specially for Carrick. He has finally been accepted as a hero.
So why were there divisions in the past? And what has happened for Carrick to finally arrive at the age of 31?
You've heard it here before, and even Paul Scholes himself says it: Michael Carrick is a "Rolls-Royce" player.
What do we mean by that? He quietly and calmly goes about his business, purring along with a touch of class.
The Stretford End may sing "hard to believe it's not Scholes," but it's not.
Scholes is and was a one-off. He has been praised all across the footballing world as one of the greatest midfielders in the world.
Sadly his time may be moving to an end. OK, so we had that last season and he came back, but this year is different. Like Sir Alex, he prefers to have his destiny in his own hands. He chose when to retire and he chose to come back because he was missing football.
But he's clearly found it much harder this year. The engine isn't running as smoothly as it was. The timing of his tackles, which was always dodgy, seems to have left him altogether.
He can still hit a sublime pass onto a sixpence in any part of the ground, but the modern game is about running and harrying just as much as passing.
Scholes has been carrying an injury which is taking a while to clear up. If United settle the Premier League title early, we may see some sign-off cameos towards the end of the season.
And wouldn't it be nice for him to retire gracefully at Wembley with the FA Cup in his hands?
Michael Carrick has never been, and never pretended to be, the new Paul Scholes. He can do a lot that Scholes can do. He himself credits the man for his own learning curve from playing alongside the maestro.
Scholes rose to fame playing in the No.10 role, pinging passes and scoring goals.
Carrick was signed from Tottenham Hotspur, not as a one-for-one replacement for Scholes, but to bring additional class and quality to United's midfield.
So again, he's not and never has been the new Paul Scholes.
But he has gradually become the new Michael Carrick.
Carrick is humble enough to acknowledge that he's learned from playing alongside Scholes. As reported in the Independent article:
"Paul is as good as it gets and has been throughout his career."
"To train alongside him and have the chance to learn every day has been something I have tried to make the most of."
"It has helped me bring my own game on whether he knows it or not and that has been a big help."
Carrick arrived in 2006, the year after Roy Keane had left the club.
The fans made an immediate comparison because they were used to having a combative midfielder who drove the team forward with Keane.
However, Carrick is a very different kind of player than the "box-to-box" player that many fans still crave. Of course there is room for such a player, but Sir Alex himself says the game has moved on.
“In the modern day game, you don't need tacklers the same way you used to. There's no call for it. It's about anticipation and reading the game."
Which is what Carrick does as well as anyone in English football, and possibly most in European football.
Having told the world that Carrick would be pivotal to United's success, Sir Alex created the holding role for him in front of the defence.
Like Andrea Pirlo, Ferguson has converted Carrick from a "trequartista" who was never going to hold a candle to Scholes, into a regista arguably as good as any in the modern game.
The other part is that Ferguson has a team where almost every player can harry and defend; the team plays as a team, not a bunch of individuals; and in attack everyone can interchange in a dynamic formation that can constantly reinvent itself.
He is the rock, the pivot and the fulcrum of the whole device. He makes the defence play better and he makes the attack play better.
While Vidic marshals the defence, Carrick runs midfield like an orchestra conductor, staying at home or even dropping into a back five when necessary.
But then you get people saying he gets plenty of space to do that and comes under pressure when opposition players close him down.
The only time that happens is when he is tired or gets no support from his colleague central midfielder. Unfortunately that usually happens when Anderson is around.
And to some, he looks to be under pressure, but watch him closely. No other player in world football looks around him as much as Carrick does before he receives the ball.
He is rarely caught in possession and his passing statistics are world class.
It seems ironic that he has even in the recent past been slammed for back and sideways passes. Has nobody been watching Barcelona and the number they are prepared to play before an opening appears?
The game has changed. You can hardly touch a player anymore. It is now a passing and moving game. Counter-attacking is prevalent.
But while other teams have tried or adopted their own versions of "tiki-taka" football, United still play attacking football and the one constant has been Michael Carrick.
He has only missed one Premier League match (including substitutions), and has been pivotal to the biggest contests.
Scholes & Carrick: end of a partnership?
With Paul Scholes retiring, the inevitable question for several seasons now has been who can replace him?
The world is still largely agreed that United need at least one more midfielder.
United have some talented young players coming through, especially Nick Powell, Adnan Januzaj, Andreas Pereira and Ben Pearson. Freddie Veseli has looked impressive for the Under 21s in a holding midfield role.
The problem for Sir Alex is that while Veseli is 20, none of the others is over 18.
Powell is the most impressive and will surely get his chance as soon as United wrap up the Premier League. But the dilemma is best illustrated by the case of Paul Pogba.
Pogba was apparently frustrated that he wasn't getting more chances in the first team. He was 19 when he left for Juventus, where he is now an established member of the first team squad and has just been called up for the full French squad.
Of course you only want players who want to play for the shirt and stay, but when a bright young star looks at Wayne Rooney or Ryan Giggs who got their chances at 16 and 17 respectively, you can't really blame them.
Two things are clear, however.
First, the United squad will always be a blend of experienced and younger players. While people get frustrated with Danny Welbeck for example, he is still barely 22 and learning his trade. You could even say that his performance in the two ties against Real Madrid was "precocious."
Second, with Scholes likely to retire and Anderson surely surplus to requirements, Sir Alex could afford to make one or even two new signings in this area.
Much will hinge on whether he finally decides to move Rooney into midfield.
If they can get Robert Lewandowski and assuming that Chicharito stays, then Rooney could drop back into midfield for the rest of his career at United.
If Sir Alex was able to sign two of his targets, say Luka Modric and Kevin Strootman, then Rooney can stay up front.
What Modric or Eriksen and Strootman or Wanyama would give the manager is the flexibility to cover off all midfield possibilities:
Two attacking midfield (from Cleverley and Modric or Eriksen).
One holding and one attacking (say Carrick or Strootman and Modric or Cleverley).
One defensive and one attacking (say Strootman or Wanyama and Modric or Cleverley).
Two holding (say Strootman and Carrick).
After all, Sir Alex has managed to rotate five centre-backs successfully (Vidic, Ferdinand, Evans, Smalling and Jones). So why not five midfielders (say Carrick, Cleverley, Modric, Strootman and Powell)
But for the time being Michael Carrick can remain "pivotal" whether or not new players are signed or young players come through. He has, for example, formed a very effective partnership with Tom Cleverley, which at the moment is United's first choice midfield combination.
That is until somebody else is signed.
So with supporters clamouring for a new midfielder and the media having identified this as a potential weakness, you can be sure there will be at least one signing this summer, depending on who is available and who gets shipped out.
That will not phase Carrick.
He has come through the post Roy Keane era and all the criticism that followed, especially around the first Champions League Final against Barcelona, where he could hardly be solely blamed.
He has experienced periods where he lost his confidence and occasionally his form. But the manager has never lost faith in him.
When he was signed from Spurs he was not what many fans were looking for. But he has surmounted all those challenges and is now a "hero."
Robin Van Persie has been identified by all and sundry as the difference that has led to United running away with the Premier League. But you cannot ignore the massive contribution from their quietly spoken, unassuming, utterly professional "Rolls Royce" midfielder.
If Scholes' return from retirement was the pivotal factor that nearly won United a 20th title last season then surely, and especially in Scholes' absence, there is a case for Michael Carrick this season and beyond?