From the unprecedented levels of success under Sir Alex to the era of uncertainty under David Moyes, Louis vaan Gaal and then the subsequent rebuilding under Mourinho… Michael Carrick has seen the ebb and flow of England’s premier club like few others, and his retirement pushes Manchester United further away from the halcyon days under Ferguson.
England boasted many world-class midfielders in the 2000s, sparking debate amongst fans as to who the best was. Steven Gerrard was an exceptional, match-winning all-rounder in his own right, Frank Lampard possessed a goalscoring record comparable to the very best strikers, while Paul Scholes was the third wheel, with technical prowess often only appreciated after his peak. Amongst the trio, there was little place for a fourth midfielder.
Carrick has always been the under-appreciated deep-lying midfielder. He was unlike his compatriots; his skill-set was subtler, less match-winning and more match defining. Holding midfielders are rarely given their due, especially when there are others with more obvious attacking skills. Carrick was no chest-thumping captain, but a quiet, thoughtful leader. It is why his absence will hit Manchester United dearly on the pitch.
Moving to Man Utd. in the summer of 2006 for £14m, he was the sixth most expensive player for the club at the time. Carrick, however, wasn’t overawed. More significantly, he helped to steer United out of a potential midfield crisis.
It was perhaps surprising that Ferguson sought out Carrick to replace Roy Keane, the strong, powerful and dominant heart of Old Trafford. Keane was an outspoken leader in the centre of park, leaving behind shoes as tough as any to fill.
Carrick couldn’t have been more different: he was calm, composed and measured, the prime qualities for a modern holding midfielder. Football loves its characters, but Carrick wasn’t one. He was the ballast that allowed expansive players to play the game. It may be for that reason why the Englishman divides opinion even to this day. Some find him underrated, some the opposite, but Carrick has only ever just done his job and left.
Sadly for him, Carrick was a decade ahead of his time. Claude Makélélé may have been the prime example of a defensive midfielder in England at the time, with the game shifting away from destroyers like Vieira and Keane, but the Englishman was no slouch when nipping in to make interceptions, even if he didn’t have the mobility of the Chelsea star. But when it came to passing football, few came close to his distribution from deep. Pep Guardiola saw it, even if fans across the country didn’t, when he considered Carrick as one of the best holding midfielders he’d seen in recent years, at the same level as Busquets and Xabi Alonso…
Carrick’s time was just before the Spanish revolution, and so he had to re-write pre-conceived notions about his position in a tactically languid country. His teammate, Paul Scholes, was himself a world-class passer of the ball, as intelligent as anyone in English football history, and is now seen as the star that got away.
Carrick was overlooked by most England managers, including luminaries such as Sven-Göran Eriksson and Fabio Capello. At the 2010 World Cup, Gareth Barry was preferred to him; at Euro 2012, Roy Hodgson excluded Carrick from the final squad on account of the midfielder not wanting to be a bit-part player. He wasn’t taken to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup either. Indeed, 34 caps over 15 years is a paltry sum, though it does highlight that his potential was clearly untapped.
Carrick, through no fault of his own, was undone by the quality of competition he faced at his peak, but equally unfortunate to have been an English footballer. While neither Gerrard, Lampard or other talents at the time deserved to be dropped, it remains a mystery as to why, with the former two being proficient in defence, they weren’t paired with a deep player who could get the ball to them in the spaces between the opposition midfield and defence.
The last of the 2008 Champions League-winning team, his retirement cuts the thread with Ferguson’s last truly great side. It feels like a coming of age for all involved. Either way, Michael Carrick is an example of humility, dedication and success to all youngsters.
His retirement will be met with the plaudits he deserves, no doubt, but many will just watch him fade away to a career of coaching, unaware of the talent that’s left the game, much like they ignored him as a player…