Since the turn of the century, Manchester United have been one of the defining factors in the Premier League, expanding horizons with unprecedented levels of success. But just as success came to them, so too did their decline.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement plunged the club into an unknown world of uncertainty. David Moyes drowned rapidly in his own quicksand, while Louis van Gaal provided entertainment off the pitch and tepidity on it. But as José Mourinho tries to re-ignite the fire with limited success, there is one man who has seen it all. Michael Carrick has seen the ebb and flow of England’s premier club like few others, and his retirement pushes United further away from the halcyon days under Ferguson.
England boasted many world-class midfielders in the 2000s, sparking debate amongst fans as to who the best was. Steven Gerrard was an exceptional, match-winning all-rounder in his own right, Frank Lampard possessed a goalscoring record comparable to the very best strikers, while Paul Scholes was the third wheel, with technical prowess often only appreciated after his peak. Amongst the trio, there was little place for a fourth midfielder.
Carrick has always been the under-appreciated deep-lying midfielder. He was unlike his compatriots; his skill-set was subtler, less match-winning and more match defining. Holding midfielders are rarely given their due, especially when there are others with more obvious attacking skills. Carrick was no chest-thumping captain, but a quiet, thoughtful leader. It is why his absence will hit Manchester United dearly.
It was perhaps surprising that Ferguson sought out Carrick to replace Roy Keane, the strong, powerful and dominant heart of Old Trafford. Keane was an outspoken leader in the centre of park, leaving behind shoes as tough as any to fill.
Carrick couldn’t have been more different: he was calm, composed and measured, the prime qualities for a modern holding midfielder. Football loves its characters, but Carrick wasn’t one. He was the ballast that allowed expansive players to play the game. It may be for that reason why the Englishman divides opinion even to this day. Some find him underrated, some the opposite, but Carrick has only ever just done his job and left. The fact that he’s transcended footballing borders within England isn’t really a concern.
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Carrick was born in Wallsend, North Tyneside, growing up as a Newcastle United fan. Considering the city’s passion for the club, it’s little wonder he ended up as such a lover of all things football. He started off playing for Wallsend Boys Club at the age of four, where there were always games going on for all ages.
While he may have wanted to turn out for his hometown club, he declined their offer of a spot in the academy, instead preferring to head to the renowned West Ham academy. It represented a challenge for Carrick both on and off the pitch, with a vastly different life in London accompanying the difficulty that would come with having to displace some stellar talent in the West Ham midfield.
At Upton Park, he made the switch from centre-forward to central midfield, a role that would eventually define him. While he encountered problems due to his slender frame, a debut in 1999/2000 was followed by loan spells at Swindon and Birmingham.
His more meaningful breakthrough came in 2000/01, when he made 41 appearances in all competitions. It was the first of four seasons in the first team, with his last coming in the First Division after they were relegated in 2003. While frustrated with his peers, he maintained his consistency even as West Ham lost in the playoff final in 2003/04, making the Team of the Season.
A failure to return to the Premier League meant Carrick wanted to leave West Ham for a top tier side, remaining in London with Tottenham Hotspur. Two seasons at Spurs saw Carrick maintain his consistency in the top-flight – even if it was also the start of his dividing of opinion across the nation – catching the attention of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Moving in the summer of 2006 for £14m, he was the sixth most expensive player for the club at the time. Carrick, however, wasn’t overawed. More significantly, he helped to steer United out of a crisis.
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In the summer that he arrived, the club was in a stupor even as rivals around them strengthened. They had failed to win the last three Premier League title, while they endured struggles continentally, too. In addition to Keane’s departure, Ruud van Nistelrooy left for Real Madrid, his relationship with Ferguson soured beyond repair.
His successors to the goal-scoring mantle, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, had their infamous altercation at the 2006 World Cup, leading to frayed tempers. There was a gaping hole in midfield too, one that couldn’t be solved immediately following Keane’s mid-season departure in November 2005. Ferguson viewed Carrick as the potential balm, even if others failed to see it at the time, his game differing from the Irishman and the other holding midfield monster of the Premier League at the time, Patrick Vieira.
While dominating with presence was one style, the other, more eminent in the public eye, was the box-to-box midfielder, epitomised as well as anyone in Europe by Gerrard and Lampard. Lampard was coincidentally from the West Ham academy too, and found Carrick to be more technically proficient than him – an irony considering Carrick was often found well below his former teammate in the England pecking order.
Sadly for him, Carrick was a decade ahead of his time. Claude Makélélé may have been the prime example of a defensive midfielder in England at the time, with the game shifting away from destroyers like Vieira and Keane, but the Englishman was no slouch when nipping in to make interceptions, even if he didn’t have the mobility of the Chelsea star. But when it came to passing football, few came close to his distribution from deep. Pep Guardiola saw it, even if fans across the country didn’t.
Sergio Busquets was at the fulcrum of the midfield trio that had established dominance for Barcelona and Spain, controlling the tempo just ahead of the defensive line, allowing Xavi and Andrés Iniesta to weave magic ahead. This was the complete midfield trio.
Busquets was himself an underrated part of Barcelona’s record-breaking sides under Guardiola, but the manager knew his worth better than anyone – and his faith would be justified. It is, then, praise of the highest order when Guardiola name-checked Carrick as one of the best holding midfielders he’d seen in recent years, at the same level as Busquets and Xabi Alonso. He also suggested that Carrick would’ve been the only United player to have gotten into his 2011 Champions League-winning side, which put on a masterclass at Wembley against United.
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Carrick’s time was just before the Spanish revolution, and so he had to re-write pre-conceived notions about his position in a tactically languid country. His teammate, Paul Scholes, was himself a world-class passer of the ball, as intelligent as anyone in English football history, and is now seen as the star that got away.
Carrick’s positioning and reading of the game were excellent, and they supplemented his ability to craft passes long and short as well as anyone in England. While in England they weren’t appreciated for much of his career, in Europe, he garnered far more praise, with opposition managers singling him out for his vision and craft.
After a controlling display in a draw against Internazionale in 2009, La Repubblica named him “El Magnifico Carrick”, while Xavi proclaimed him his favourite English footballer at the time. With England, though, he still couldn’t find a way into the midfield to hold for the likes of Gerrard and Lampard. It seems folly for it to even be a discussion today – the trio could’ve been amongst the best-balanced and gifted in Europe.
Instead, Carrick was overlooked by most England managers, including luminaries such as Sven-Göran Eriksson and Fabio Capello. At the 2010 World Cup, Gareth Barry was preferred to him; at Euro 2012, Roy Hodgson excluded Carrick from the final squad on account of the midfielder not wanting to be a bit-part player. He wasn’t taken to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup either. Indeed, 34 caps over 15 years is a paltry sum, though it does highlight that his potential was clearly untapped.
With Carrick and players of his style, statistics tell very little, perhaps other than passing metrics. Carrick brought limited goals, assists – though he did end up with the joint-most at Tottenham in his second season – and crunching tackles to the table, while his contemporaries did. It’s an indictment that the position was viewed in the wrong light, especially when the Spaniards were dominating at the time. The intangibles were rarely considered.
Carrick, through no fault of his own, was undone by the quality of competition he faced at his peak, but equally unfortunate to have been an English footballer. Disillusioned with Three Lions camps during his time as an international, he often knew he wouldn’t be given a chance, with the likes of Phil Neville winning almost double the number of caps. While neither Gerrard, Lampard or other talents at the time deserved to be dropped, it remains a mystery as to why, with the former two being proficient in defence, they weren’t paired with a deep player who could get the ball to them in the spaces between the opposition midfield and defence.
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On the flip-side, though, and much like Ryan Giggs, Carrick’s lack of international game time saw him play much more for United. He was one of Ferguson’s constants, and one of the reasons why United evolved into a more continental side post-2006. Carlos Queiroz, Ferguson’s influential assistant, masterminded a possession-based philosophy at odds with the still-prevalent English style. It gave Carrick a big role at the base of the midfield. Club football was Carrick’s yin to England’s yang.
That some still view him as overrated is simply the avoidance of a reluctant admission that Carrick was under-used. He wasn’t a star; his work went unnoticed by most viewers, including some United fans. It led to a school of thought that suggests Carrick is overrated largely because there are so many that suggest he’s underrated. While a strange oxymoron, the reason is obvious.
Carrick went about his work so quietly, so simply, that some feel it could’ve been done by anyone. Except that it isn’t the case. Carrick is a rarity in England, to the point that he’s assumed to be a commoner. It is no wonder why many find him to be another half-decent English midfielder, while United fans wax lyrical about him. He was one of those whose quality could only be discerned by regular viewings.
All of that, however, is unlikely to faze Carrick much. A supporting actor at Old Trafford for 12 years, he never craved the limelight. It is why he has been a senior player either side of Ferguson’s retirement, providing much-needed leadership in the wake of the chaos.
He’s one of the rare Englishmen to have won it all: a five-time Premier League champion, three League Cups, one FA Cup, the Champions League, the Europa League and a Club World Cup. If you throw in the six Community Shields, it means he’s won seven different trophies at United. It’s an achievement alone that should lay any doubts to bed. That he won the Players’ Player of the Year award in Ferguson’s title swansong in 2012/13, ahead of Robin van Persie, highlights how valued he was by those that matter most – his peers.
The last of the 2008 Champions League-winning team, his retirement cuts the thread with Ferguson’s last truly great side. It feels like a coming of age for all involved. Either way, Michael Carrick is an example of humility, dedication and success to all youngsters. His retirement will be met with the plaudits he deserves, no doubt, but many will just watch him fade away to a career of coaching, unaware of the talent that’s left the game, much like they ignored him as a player.
By Rahul Warrier @rahulw_