Inevitably, the time will come when Manchester United must replace club great Michael Carrick. The former Tottenham deep-lying playmaker has won everything in club football at Manchester United, and could likely even take the Europa League this year, but his ageing persona showed with a lethargic performance against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. One cannot blame him, either- he’s 35 years old.
However, numerous players have struggled to fill Carrick’s role- Bastian Schweinsteiger faltered remarkably before showing greater age and lesser determination than Carrick, while Morgan Schneiderlin’s intensity and attacking pressing didn’t fit Carrick’s defensive role or Jose Mourinho’s personal preferences in footballers.
With the likes of Sean Goss, Daley Blind, and Timothy Fosu-Mensah all available to take over from Carrick, there are options at Manchester United, but it would be very bold to enter another season without another proven midfielder in Carrick’s role. Identifying three targets in the transfer market to cover the spectrum of scenarios in which United could find themselves, we can come up with a better idea of the criteria expected from a player replacing Michael Carrick.
The Dream: Toni Kroos, Real Madrid
Signing Paul Pogba this summer, United acquired a player who has the current midfield ability to go nearly unrivalled in world football. In signing Toni Kroos, Manchester United would be acquiring a player that exceeds the quality of Pogba, while ticking all the boxes to replace Michael Carrick. Kroos’ calmness in midfield is unmatched, as he presents an incredible passing tally in all aspects of the word.
Kroos’ 93% pass completion would have most people believing he passes sideways and backwards, but incredibly, the German has nine assists in fourteen La Liga appearances this season. Also completing 8.1 long balls and 2.8 key passes every match, Kroos clearly possesses the ability to start attacks, and even finish them, with the ability to strike a ball from range or find any player on the pitch.
While Kroos doesn’t hold the same defensive positioning as Michael Carrick, he would completely replicate the presence of the Englishman in midfield. Ander Herrera has looked fantastic in a deeper role for United and would benefit from the presence of a Carrick-esque player who can also play further up the pitch, interchanging with the Spaniard to add different aspects to United’s attack and defence. United would also have the option of playing a double-pivot midfield with Kroos and Herrera, allowing Pogba to join up with a front-three. This would be especially important if Antoine Griezmann turned up at Old Trafford.
Realistic Signing: Johannes Geis, Schalke
Should Manchester United fail to shake world football with a signing of Toni Kroos’ calibre, the second option will be to build a footballer with the same quality. In that scenario, almost no player is better for United than Schalke’s Johannes Geis, one of German football’s brightest prospects.
Geis, who made his name at Mainz as a deep-lying playmaker, has improved his game further at Schalke, and he’s known for his contributions in all three phases of football from defensive midfield. In defence, he’s an adept tackler of the ball, completing 3 tackles every 90 minutes. Passing the ball, he doesn’t possess the accuracy of Carrick, but much like the Englishman, Geis is known for taking forward passes that can split a defence open with the first move of the attack. This is well-illustrated by his 2.8 key passes per game, which is remarkable for a defensive midfielder.
In addition, Geis is an incredible technician from set-pieces, and known for his crossing ability- this is rare for a defensive midfielder and allows him to stand out amongst other similar players. Playing in the Bundesliga, the transition to the Premier League will be much more manageable than the potential adjustments for the likes of Tiemoué Bakayoko or Fabinho, reported Manchester United midfield targets from Monaco. Geis represents a realistic target, developing into an elite, unique player, and he would likely cost less than £25 million.
Wildcard Option: Virgil Van Dijk, Southampton
I could continue listing central midfielders forever, but as a wildcard option, Jose Mourinho could always change Manchester United’s system. A potential 3-4-3 system would unlock the best from United’s midfield, and the signing of Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk would enable this transition to occur seamlessly.
The aspect of Van Dijk’s football that makes him so appealing is his distribution of the ball because it is nothing short of incredible. The Dutchman has already scored four goals for Southampton this season, more than all of United’s central defenders and defensive midfielders combined. Van Dijk’s Dutch football upbringing will prove useful as he plays in a 3-4-3 formation. Most importantly, Van Dijk averages 4.6 aerial wins every 90 minutes, a vital attribute for the central defender in a 3-4-3 system.
This system change unlocks everything with which Manchester United is currently struggling, as well. In midfield, Ander Herrera will be able to occupy deeper areas and break into midfield with the ball, and Paul Pogba will have a much more defensively disciplined, attacking free role to perform in. Antonio Valencia’s best position is still as a wingback, while Daley Blind always performs best in a 3-man defence, be it as the wingback, central midfielder, or left-central defender.
Moving forward, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, along with Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney, and Jesse Lingard, could all play in channel-oriented attacking roles, suiting them greatly. If Antoine Griezmann joins Manchester United, he could form a front-three with Zlatan Ibrahimovic (or Martial) and Mkhitaryan, dovetailing and interchanging to create goals.
While Michael Carrick is an important player for Manchester United, there are many options that would replace his presence as a side. The key to replacing him will be finding a system that allows United to win matches and function with the same fluidity as before. This can be achieved through the acquisition of a world-class footballer in Carrick’s mould, a high-potential player with unique abilities, or by changing the system and being creative. The route upon which Jose Mourinho chooses to venture will be an intriguing sight to behold.