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Manchester United: Free-thinking Michael Carrick shows Ralf Rangnick he's a man worth keeping around

Michael Carrick, Manchester United
(Image credit: Getty Images)

As a player, Michael Carrick was known more for his passing, but as a manager he began with a dummy that seemed to fool everyone. Manchester United’s caretaker started off by saying his beliefs were “very similar” to those of the sacked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The Villarreal manager Unai Emery admitted it was hard to know who Carrick would choose for his first game in charge but confidently predicted that Harry Maguire, Cristiano Ronaldo and Bruno Fernandes would start.

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And then Carrick dropped Fernandes, such a talisman for Solskjaer that he played 58 of United’s 61 games last season and all 17 under the Norwegian this. Fast forward five days and perhaps Thomas Tuchel was surprised by Carrick’s second selection. Back came Fernandes, but not as the No. 10 he invariably was under Solskjaer: instead he was more of a No. 9. The Portuguese who normally occupies that role, Ronaldo, was benched. Meanwhile, with Maguire suspended, none of the three constants Emery identified have begun both of the caretaker’s two games in charge. 

Carrick may be the second successive nice guy to assume temporary charge for United but two games at the helm have illustrated he is no Solskjaer clone. Nor, indeed, is he a mouthpiece for Ralf Rangnick. The emphatic denial that United’s now interim manager dictated the dropping of Ronaldo showed as much. 

Welcome to the liberation of Michael Carrick. A week has shown he is a refreshingly independent thinker and while it is often said that caretaker managers have little to lose and it can be an astute move to distance themselves from a sacked predecessor, it displayed a certain strength to bench a former team-mate and all-time great like Ronaldo away at Chelsea. The presumption is that Carrick will hope for a place on the staff of both Rangnick and his eventual successor; demoting Fernandes and Ronaldo are the sort of decisions that could make relations with two talismen more problematic when he is back in the ranks.

Perhaps Solskjaer followed a pattern for many caretakers, arriving overflowing with ideas and ending up relying on a smaller core and leaving others marginalised. Carrick may get a third game to experiment, but will not end up with three years in charge like the Norwegian. 

But it is notable how much he altered, both in terms of personnel and formation, even if not all was successful and there is a case for arguing both results were a little flattering. But Solskjaer had not played the kind of hybrid of 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 Carrick used in Spain, nor the narrower 4-3-3 he deployed at Chelsea. Both were shapes without a No.10.

Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s lone start for Carrick came on the left against Villarreal. The lone attacker to begin both of his games was Jadon Sancho, who only started one of Solskjaer’s final six. That Sancho scored twice for Carrick, after never for Solskjaer, showed a swift change in fortunes. Should he go on to be pivotal to United, that may be Carrick’s legacy.

Nor did Carrick necessarily take the populist way. There were few calls in the fanbase for Anthony Martial to feature more and if the Frenchman was ineffectual against Villarreal, his selection nevertheless showed Carrick had different plans. There was a meritocracy to starting Donny van de Beek, after his fine second half at Watford, but also something symbolic in a side that featured the Dutchman but not Fernandes.

The easy move would have been to separate ‘McFred’; instead Scott McTominay and Fred began both games, with the Brazilian winning the ball for each of United’s goals in Spain and the Scot excelling at Stamford Bridge. Nemanja Matic felt another beneficiary, given a first start against big-six opponents for 13 months, and if Carrick was once an old, slow midfielder himself, that may explain a fondness for them; yet while Juan Mata’s appearance last Tuesday was a one-minute affair, it was notable for being his first in either the Premier or Champions League this season. A forgotten man was remembered.

If absentees – Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Luke Shaw and Raphael Varane for both games, Maguire and Mason Greenwood for one apiece – freed up some spaces, it was nevertheless notable that Carrick sometimes eschewed the obvious or crowd-pleasing approach.   

None of which automatically proves he has a golden future as a manager. Rewind three years and most of Solskjaer’s original gambits succeeded, after all. But a couple of positive results for a team that had been in freefall, overseen by a different thinker, helped suggest that Carrick is a coach with some interesting ideas and a figure of some stature. They may be traits Rangnick likes.

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Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.