While others around him have at times fallen out of favour and picked up injuries, Carrick has more or less been a mainstay in central midfield for United since his arrival from Spurs’ in 2006.
At the time it was believed he was brought in to replace Roy Keane in the heart of the team, but with the No. 16 on his back, Carrick began carving out his own role in United’s starting XI.
The Englishman wasn’t of the Keane mould. Or the Paul Scholes mould. He doesn’t bark at teammates and crash into opponents, nor does he arrive late in the box to finish off moves.
In his 193 league appearances for the Red Devils, Carrick has provided United with composure in the centre of the park. He breaks up play, not with crunching tackles, but with excellent positional awareness, and his accuracy in the pass has been a key component to United’s success.
As his former boss at Spurs, Martin Jol, once said—per Sky Sports: “Because of him, other players played better.”
At 32 years old, David Moyes will have been wary of the limited time Carrick has left at his peak. But now the manager’s hand has been forced, and the options at his disposal haven’t exactly been tried and tested.
Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley deputised in central midfield against Fulham two weeks ago when Carrick missed out with injury. The pair played well in United’s 3-1 win but there will be plenty of sterner tests than Fulham in the coming weeks and months.
Jones is a big game player as he proved in the win over Arsenal at the weekend.
He put in an immense shift against the Gunners, as he did in last year’s Champions League tie with Real Madrid, but the role he played against these sides isn’t one that is required in every match.
United are expected to dominate possession against a large portion of teams they play. But Jones’ talents with the ball at his feet are limited. He won’t conduct proceedings from the centre like Carrick has done in recent years.
The 21-year-old’s role in the big games has been to limit the opposition’s space and break up the play. When sides like Crystal Palace and Sunderland come to town, United don’t need this type of player.
The Englishman said as recently as Nov. 13 that he wants to play at centre back—per Sky Sports.
It's always nice to play in the position you feel most comfortable in. I played in midfield against Norwich in the Capital One Cup, but mostly it has been centre-back and that's where I want to be.
So where does that leave Moyes?
Marouane Fellaini. Maybe? *ducks for cover*
The Belgian has endured a rough start to his time at United, and that’s putting it politely, but there aren't many other options.
Attack-minded players like Adnan Januzaj and Shinji Kagawa are unlikely to drop deep, Ryan Giggs is set to turn 40 this month, and Anderson, quite frankly, isn't good enough.
Cleverley is another option, but he isn’t the kind of player who can run the midfield. Nor one who will put the team on his back and drive them forward.
One of the first things Fellaini said upon arriving at Old Trafford was that his best position is as a defensive midfielder, according to Richard Beech in the Mirror.
Fellaini played in a more advanced role at Everton, but he was always willing to put in a shift behind the ball. He is fantastic in the air and strong in the challenge.
The problem with the former Everton man is his ability to focus throughout the 90 minutes. His concentration can often sway and his discipline is questionable at times.
So far, the United shirt has been a weight on his shoulders. He often looks overawed when walking out at Old Trafford, and he has been guilty of going missing in games.
Moyes’ biggest focus in the coming weeks should be getting the best out of his former star, because he may just be his best option. Fellaini could yet be a big player for United this season, he just needs to rediscover his mojo.
With Cardiff, Tottenham, Everton, Newcastle, Aston Villa, Stoke, West Ham, Hull and Norwich to come in the league before the curtain closes on 2013, Moyes needs to urgently find a way to replace Carrick.
United's 2012/13 Player of the Year hasn't always received the praise he has deserved outside of Old Trafford. But United fans will be hoping that his importance to the team doesn’t suddenly become noticeable by his absence over the next six weeks.