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Michael Carrick’s departure leaves a void Manchester United must address

After an illustrious tenure with Manchester United, Michael Carrick has called an end to his playing career. He will join Jose Mourinho’s managerial staff next season. The former Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United man won five Premier League titles, a Champions League, an FA Cup and three League Cups during his time at Old Trafford.

Brought in to solidify United’s central midfield following the acrimonious departure of Roy Keane, his task was unenviable. The Irishman hadn’t just been a talismanic club captain vital to United’s domestic dominance and continental exploits, he was an embodiment of what supporters crave to see on the pitch. Keane’s all action, blood and thunder, no prisoners approach made clear his quality, passion and desire.

The English game has always been more attracted to the visceral that football has to offer. Crunching tackles and moments of individual brilliance — attributes Keane possessed in spades — have always captured the imagination of fans more than the composure, skill and guile which characterized Carrick’s play. It took time for the club’s supporters to adjust to the new norm. Acclimating from Keane’s obvious and visible contributions to Carrick’s more graceful and methodical approach was gradual, but the trophies which poured in following his arrival made clear his quality.

His steady approach in the center of the pitch was key to that success. Perhaps the biggest compliment which can be paid to Carrick is his versatility allowed him to play array of roles alongside a number of different partners effectively throughout his career.

He was capable of shielding the back four as a defensive midfielder and recycling possession to a more creative force. Carrick performed this function to a high degree alongside Paul Scholes at the outset of his time with the club, sacrificing his own considerably playmaking ability for the benefit of the team.

Later on, as Scholes declined and Darren Fletcher dealt with health issues, he took up more responsibility as a playmaker. A hallmark of Ferguson’s final team during the 2012/13 season, in which United won their 20th and last league title, was Carrick operating as a deep-lying playmaker.  He would pick up the ball off the center backs and spray incisive forward passes to put United on the front foot.

Regardless of what his specific role and function Carrick was, it was his innate ability to connect the team together in ways difficult to quantify with stats which set him apart. He was never a prolific goalscorer, nor was he setting up goals, but it’s no coincidence his introduction into the team coincided with one of the most successful runs in United or any English club’s history.

He was the glue which helped blend together disparate parts of the team and meld them into a cohesive unit. He possessed the rare talent to control and dictate the tempo of the game. United were blessed to transition from Scholes — who also shared this unique ability — to Carrick seamlessly. His gradual decline in recent years which coincided with Ferguson’s retirement has helped to drive home how difficult of a role it is to play and how important a void it is to fill.

Despite splashing vast sums on midfielders like Ander Herrera, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Morgan Schneiderlin and Marouane Fellaini under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, United struggled to control matches. Even when they did turning that control into goals and chances proved difficult. Both managers inevitably had to turn to Carrick to solidify their play although the ravages of time meant he no longer had the legs to perform the dual tasks of providing defensive cover and operate as a deep-lying playmaker.

Jose Mourinho’s arrival saw United splash the cash on a world record fee for Paul Pogba followed by Nemanja Matic’s arrival from Chelsea a year later. Yet United still lack the fluency in their play which Carrick’s presence guaranteed.

Pogba’s physicality, creativity and brilliance going forward are unquestioned, but he lacks the game intelligence to control matches from midfield or to consistently elevate the team’s performance himself. At just 25 years old it’s still possible for him to develop that understanding, but for, now he’s best used in a free attacking role where others do the grunt work defensively and initiate play from deeper. Matic, while possessing excellent defensive awareness and an ability to retain possession and carry it forward against pressure, simply doesn’t have the creativity and passing range of Carrick.

Mourinho’s Manchester United possess undoubted individual quality. They, however, remain in search of an identity and cohesiveness to elevate them as a group. It is yet another task for which a young Michael Carrick would have undoubtedly been the man for.

Written by Ashwin Ramnath

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