Why Michael Carrick should start for England this summer
If it's a straight shoot-out between Carrick, Parker and Barry for the defensive midfield role, the stats show the Old Trafford man should get the nod, says Alex Keble
Until recently, Michael Carrick's league form has gone somewhat characteristically unnoticed. His quiet consistency, although never overlooked by his manager, fails to draw the attention of the press. This is no real surprise: Carrick's play relies primarily on tackles and interceptions, breaking up opposition attacks before playing a simple pass to begin the classic Man United counter attack.
It's fair to say Carrick wouldn't be the first name suggested for Roy Hodgson's Euro 2012 squad, but a brief look at statistics from FourFourTwo's Stats Zone quickly answers any questions. It's not his defensive work that merits inclusion ahead of rivals like Tottenham's Scott Parker and Manchester City's Gareth Barry, but his excellent use of the ball.
Will England use a defensive midfielder?
Roy Hodgson is well renowned to be a pragmatic manager who, given only a short space of time to work with the players before the Euros, will look to focus on defensive solidity. He will be acutely aware of England's technical deficiency, knowing that England are, despite media hype, underdogs.
With this in mind, there's a good chance of Hodgson utilising a midfield anchorman. Analysing England's recent international record, we can see that in the last six competitive games England have won four and drawn two. All four wins came when England used a 4-5-1 with Parker playing deep; both draws were when Capello selected a more traditional 4-4-2.
Hodgson's West Brom team regularly switched between 4-4-2 and 4-5-1, choosing the latter against stronger teams when a more defensive set-up is necessary. In the last two months Hodgson has used five in midfield (with Youssouf Mulumbu in the holding role) against Man City, Newcastle, Chelsea and Man United. The likelihood of him fielding a similar formation in the European Championships seems relatively high, considering he has already acknowledged success in the summer is 'going to be unbelievably hard'.
Carrick, Parker or Barry?
So why pick Carrick ahead of Parker, the man whose terrier-like approach has seen him become an international regular and guaranteed first choice for high-flying Spurs Ã¢ÂÂ or Barry, who has been England's default defensive midfielder for half a decade? At first glance, Parker makes more tackles per game than Carrick (3.8 to 3.1) and his interceptions are also superior (3.2 to 2.5). His play on the ball, however, is far weaker than Carrick's.
This isn't an abstract problem. Hodgson has been quoted as saying "If you take [the second striker] out, the threat to the back of the defence has to come from the midfield, you need midfield players bursting forward... The central midfielders do an important job for you, theyÃ¢ÂÂre going to protect the back four, and theyÃ¢ÂÂre also going to be the catalysts for attacks'.
In other words, in Hodgson's 4-5-1, he needs two thing from his central midfield. He needs them to be "bursting forward" Ã¢ÂÂ which seems much more like Parker than Barry Ã¢ÂÂ but he also needs them to be the "catalyst for attacks". Step forward Michael Carrick.
Carrick's defensive statistics may not be as high as Parker's but they are still very good. He makes 3.1 tackles per game, more than both Marouane Fellaini and Alex Song. He also averages 2.5 interceptions per match Ã¢ÂÂ no mean feat for a midfielder.
What's most intriguing is the number of clearances Carrick makes: a puny 1.6 per game, lower than Parker and Barry. Why is it that a midfielder so adept at breaking down opposition attacks rarely makes clearances? The answer: he seldom feels the need to do so.
Carrick's ball retention is outstanding. He makes an average of 72.4 passes per game, significantly higher than Parker or Barry, and bettered only by Yaya Toure and Mikel Arteta, arguably the two best midfielders in the league this season. Of these passes, Carrick has an 89.8% completion rate, and his long pass completion is even more impressive, with an average of 6.1 per game: Carrick rarely loses the ball, rarely gives away possession.
Given Hodgson requires a midfielder who can be the "catalyst for attacks", Carrick fits the bill perfectly. The consistency of his passing and his ball retention skills make, as can be easily seen in any Man United match, a huge contribution to their swift counter-attacks.
If Hodgson requires attackers to burst forward to support a lone striker, than surely an anchorman who will play the pass rather than clear his lines is the best way to ensure his fellow midfielders can offer attacking support quickly and efficiently. The cool head of Carrick, calmly retaining possession and beginning an England attack, suddenly appears as a favourable option to Parker.
Evidence: Head-to-Head In Key Games
To consolidate this idea, let us analyse Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur against the same opponent: their 2-1 victories against Arsenal.
When United won at the Emirates in January, Carrick played as part of a four-man midfield, in an anchor role that allowed Giggs the freedom to link up with Rooney, dropping into his familiar role at No.10. Parker played a very similar role as part of a four-man midfield in Spurs' October win over Arsenal.
The Stats Zone statistics show us Carrick's high pass success rate (51 out of 56) and his unusually low number of clearances (2), suggesting good ball retention and controlled defensive play.
What's more, Carrick made more passes and more tackles than any other player on the pitch, although, importantly, he made comparatively few clearances, and fewer than his counterpart Alex Song. United had 51.4% possession at the Emirates, completing 350 passes to Arsenal's 334.
Whereas Carrick trumped his fellow midfielders for the number of passes made, the stats show that Parker made fewer passes than five other players including four Arsenal midfielders; indeed, at White Hart Lane Arsenal had 61.7% and completed 415 passes to Tottenham's 227.
Perhaps as a result of this pressure, Parker made more tackles than Carrick (and the second most in the game).
Both men attempted two clearances, but Carrick's were inside his own penalty box, suggesting he will only clear the ball and willingly concede possession when there is imminent danger. Parker's clearances, from slightly further forward, may indicate a deficiency in composure. This may appear a subtle difference, but it may just be exposed at international level.
Perhaps more damningly, Opta stats reveal that Parker was tackled more often than Carrick (or for that matter Gareth Barry). The Spurs man was dispossessed 58 times in his 29 league games Ã¢ÂÂ twice a game, double the average of Barry (36 times in 34 games) and four times Carrick, who was dispossessed only 15 times in 30 games. With possession of paramount importance, Carrick is simply less likely to lose the ball.
Carrick for England?
England were transformed in 2007 when Gareth Barry re-entered the England set-up in a similar role, albeit in a 4-4-2 formation. Having relied on the tenacity of Owen Hargreaves up until this point, the introduction of an excellent passing midfielder in a deep role instantly gave more freedom to Steven Gerrard. Barry has remained in the England set up ever since, but his defensive work cannot compare to that of Parker or Carrick.
It is interesting to note that Manchester United, a team with the highest possession rate in the league, have won fewer aerial duels than any team bar Swansea and Wigan. Having a defensive midfielder who does not put the ball in the air, but instead quickly and efficiently turns over possession, certainly helps this statistic, and gives his fellow midfielders more time on the ball.
It's no wonder that Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have had such great seasons dictating play from the centre of the park, while Ashley Young has impressed on the left,Wayne Rooney has had his best league goalscoring season and Danny Welbeck has broken through for club and country. With Carrick in the England side, we can expect a similar amount of time and space for his team-mates in Ukraine.