“Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.” – Johan Cruyff
Watching the evergreen Michael Carrick orchestrate Manchester United’s impressive league win over Swansea, the immortal words of Johan Cruyff say all that needs to be said about the immense quality the 35-year-old brings to this Manchester United side.
Carrick has appeared in just six matches this season but United have won all six. He’s beaten the Premier League champions at Wembley, captained United to victory in a Manchester derby and, in his first Premier League start of the season, led his side to their first league win in more than a month.
With Carrick pulling the strings at the base of the midfield, Paul Pogba was free to express himself, and put in one of his best performances of the season. He scored a sensational goal to give Manchester United the lead in the first half, while his range of passing and quality in possession of the ball allowed United to dominate throughout. Pogba was at the heart of everything Mourinho’s side did well; a performance you would expect from a man who cost £89 million.
Jose Mourinho is acutely aware of the importance Michael Carrick brings to this team, speaking just last week, Mourinho understands the effect the veteran can have on the players around him:
“It’s one thing to be 25 years old, another thing to be 35 years old. That’s the logic of things. But the only thing I can say is he’s phenomenal. No doubts about it. Do I have to manage? I think I have to.
“I can’t expect from Michael what I can expect from [Marcus] Rashford or [Ander] Herrera in terms of playing three, four, five, seven consecutive matches.
“He gives us stability in our game, he gives mental freedom to the other guys around him to be more offensive.”
If you want to analyse who Carrick gives that additional freedom to, then look no further than Paul Pogba. The statistics alone tell the story; Pogba completed 96% of his passes, four successful take-ons, two aerial duels, two interceptions and one fantastic goal. He misplaced just three of his 94 passes during the match and contributed a complete midfield display. That is the kind of quality United can call upon when they give him the platform to succeed.
To mirror that, Carrick’s numbers are just as important. He completed 95% of his passes alongside Pogba and his very presence in the team unshackled the Frenchman, releasing him from defensive responsibility and enabling him to perform at a higher level.
It is as if Mourinho is slowly figuring out how to get the best out of the man he broke the world transfer record to sign in the summer. Looking at the whole team, it was clear that Pogba was the focal point. Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney, two of United’s more senior attacking players, both of whom want to play in a central no.10 position, were cast out to wider positions to accommodate Pogba’s role in the middle, while Carrick’s selection prompted the change to an entirely different tactical system.
With a midfield three of Carrick, Fellaini and Pogba, United no longer had to line-up in a 4-2-3-1, instead switching to a more recognisable 4-3-3, allowing Pogba to flourish. Carrick was comfortable playing from deep as the midfield pivot and Pogba was freed to push forward at will, resulting in his dominant and eye-catching display.
Carrick’s presence liberates and empowers others because of his positional intelligence and discipline, coupled with his impressive passing range and ability to retain possession in any area. As such, he affords the creative players in front of him the luxury of taking more risks, which allowed Rooney and Mata to break from the disciplines of the system and interact freely. The way they roamed from the wide positions into central areas gave Pogba more options in possession and suddenly United were attacking with a front four; Ibrahimovic, Rooney, Mata and Pogba. At times they were unplayable, and the interchanging movement, one touch passing and intricate flicks and tricks and sheer ease with which they played through Swansea was a joy to behold.
As soon as the final whistle blew at the Liberty Stadium, thoughts were already turning to the first match after the international break. Arsenal visit Old Trafford in another mouth-watering league clash. How will United line-up then?
Manchester United fans will be calling for Carrick to remain in the team and, after seeing Pogba perform so well, they will want to see a continuation of the 4-3-3 system with one proviso; that Ander Herrera returns from suspension in place of Marouane Fellaini.
The question in Mourinho’s mind is all about when and how to get the best out of Michael Carrick as he accepts he cannot play him in every single match, no matter how much he wants to.
“I would love to play him every game but that is not possible.
“Why? For the same reason that I cannot go to the gym every day any more. He started at Swansea and he played very, very well.”
With the demands of the Premier League, Europa League commitments and the EFL Cup quarter-final to come, Manchester United have a very busy November ahead of them. Then in December they face the annual challenge of negotiating the hectic Christmas period; United have seven fixtures altogether in December. If they are to mount a comeback in this season’s title race, the next two months will be pivotal. Can they get the best out of Paul Pogba without over-taxing Michael Carrick?