Michael Carrick has had his fair share of detractors over the last few years, but recently there appears to have been a sea change, with his range of passing, positional awareness and control of games drawing plaudits of the national media.
Yet he is hardly a fan favorite. Long resigned to the fact he plays almost every Premier League game, I nonetheless know plenty of Manchester United fans who drop their shoulders and sigh when No. 16 appears on the teamsheet for big European nights or the business end of domestic cups.
"Slow," "weak," "ponderous" and "non-effectual" are all words I’ve heard to describe a player who has racked up over 200 appearances for the Red Devils. It can be summarized by this sentence used by two different United fans I know on separate occasions: “I just don’t understand what he does.”
So why is it that a player trusted so implicitly by Sir Alex Ferguson can’t generate at least feelings of reassurance in the Old Trafford faithful?
Partly it’s that United fans are used to match winners. They are used to having them everywhere. Players who will put in that final block late in the game, get a goal from nowhere, boss the midfield physically or wear the opposition into the ground through sheer work rate.
That isn’t Carrick’s game. His goal return isn’t impressive, he rarely slides in to make last-ditch tackles and doesn’t enforce his personality (or ego) on the game.
Carrick is not a highlight-reel player, and for a United player to be such an integral part of the team and not have a list of iconic moments attached to his play leaves United fans feeling, well, cheated.
His style of play reminds me of his colleague in midfield, Paul Scholes. For years Scholes was lauded for his goals, and the odd mention of his “tackling.” It is only recently, since the emergence of the Spanish and Barcelona style of play that Brits have woken up to the less "crash bang wallop" aspects of his play, which he is now lauded for.
Next time a Manchester United game is on (you won't have to wait long), watch Carrick play. He looks for the player furthest forward to pass to. More often than not he plays a straight pass into Robin van Persie’s feet, the same pass, incidentally, that in defense Carrick shields his back four from.
When tracking back, he maneuvers the opposition to where they have least support, in attack he is always an outlet ball to ensure his team can maintain possession if something more expansive isn’t on.
He makes Manchester United tick. We find it harder to appreciate players like this in England.
We have known for years that England struggle to keep the ball at international tournaments, yet continually play the likes of Gareth Barry and Scott Parker in games their style of play is completely unsuited to.
We have a ball-retaining midfielder, England and United have had him for years. United use him and have won the Champions League and four league titles. England don’t, and they have diddly.
I wonder what his reputation might be if he played in another country, or had a different nationality imprinted in his passport. He’s not box office, but you need soldiers as well as generals, and Carrick is Ferguson's aide-de-camp.