Michael Cox assesses the options available to David Moyes, with their Geordie metronome set for a spell on the sidelines.
Despite his nomination for PFA Player of the Year, and being named Manchester United’s Player of the Year last season, Michael Carrick continues to divide opinion.
Some insist he’s one of the finest defensive midfielders around, winning the ball intelligently and calmly without diving into tackles, while others claim he lacks the power and fighting spirit needed for that position, and doesn’t compare to his predecessor in the number 16 shirt, Roy Keane.
It seems Carrick is one of those reliable, understated characters whose importance only becomes clear to the doubters when he’s absent from the side. Last weekend, in a 2-2 draw at Cardiff City, United conceded when Jordon Mutch found space between the lines, and sent a wonderful through-ball into the path of Fraizer Campbell, who finished smartly.
It was a genuinely superb goal, but there was one obvious piece of analysis from a United perspective – had Carrick been in the side, he probably would have been in a position to stop Mutch.
Carrick probably wouldn’t have tackled Mutch – he makes only 1.9 tackles per game, which puts him on the fringes of the Premier League’s top 80 tacklers so far this season. He might, however, have made an interception. With four interceptions per game, he’s the joint leader in that category – Crystal Palace’s energetic midfielder Mile Jedinak is alongside him in that respect, but given Crystal Palace spend much longer periods without the ball, Carrick’s tally is more impressive.
His star performances in the league this season have been against Swansea and Crystal Palace, which have proved how he intercepts more frequently than he tackles.
Without Carrick, who is reported to be sidelined for another two or three weeks with an Achilles injury, Manchester United don’t have an obvious replacement in that zone. This is probably the time for Marouane Fellaini to step up and dominate the centre of the pitch, but so far he’s been underwhelming in a Manchester United shirt.
In the draw at Cardiff, Fellaini demonstrated that he’s more of a forceful tackler than an interceptor, but of greater interest was the positions of both – it’s notable that he was often dragged away from the central zone, whereas Carrick stays solidly in position, between the width of the penalty boxes.
In that same game, Tom Cleverley was also dragged out to the left frequently – both his interceptions were in wide positions. He failed with his only attempted tackle, and it was also interesting that he committed four fouls in the centre of the pitch – Carrick, in stark contrast, has committed just nine fouls in 13 games.
Another option, Anderson, hasn’t impressed under Moyes. His last league appearance was in the shock 2-1 defeat to West Brom, and while the Brazilian was playing alongside Carrick and therefore not primarily in a defensive role, his lack of contribution without the ball was amazing.
He made one tackle, no interceptions, only recovered the ball once and committed two fouls. Anderson also appears to be unable to last 90 minutes in the Premier League – rarely playing for more than an hour.
With those options not promising, Phil Jones is probably the most obvious replacement for Carrick. Although a completely different sort of player – an energetic battler rather than a cool interceptor – when fielded in central midfield he’s often performed impressively.
Against Arsenal, for example, he made interceptions in central midfield, but also brought his own style of defending to the side – making three crucial blocks on the edge of the box.
The positions of his ball recoveries and clearances, meanwhile, show that he remains in central positions, and helps to protect his centre-backs.
With Ryan Giggs unable to play every week, a combination of Jones and Fellaini is probably the best bet for Moyes throughout Carrick’s absence – neither have his positional skill, but Jones is a more intelligent holding midfielder than often given credit for, while Fellaini deserves a chance to demonstrate his ability in that position, following his summer move.
Most United fans, however, will be praying Carrick returns to action as quickly as possible – Moyes simply doesn’t have an adequate replacement.