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Michael Carrick: The Atypical English Regista

April 29th, 2012 SB Tang No comments

Last Sunday afternoon at Old Trafford, one Manchester United player was instrumental to the creation of three of United’s four goals against Everton.[1] Without him,[2] United would surely have lost a game they ended up drawing 4-4, and allowed second-placed Manchester City to cut the points gap to two, instead of three, ahead of their meeting at Eastlands this Monday night. However, that same player was singled out for criticism for his performance against Everton — for example, The Guardian’s Jamie Jackson posited that “one verdict is that [he] did not do enough to shape this afternoon for his team.

The player’s name is Michael Carrick and he will no doubt be used to such criticisms by now. Indeed, when, in March 2011, United announced that the Geordie had signed a new three-year deal keeping him at the club until the end of the 2013–14 season, the response from a significant segment of United fans was underwhelming to say the least.[3]

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Football, as we are so often told, is a team sport and the success of a professional career is measured primarily by reference to the number of championship medals won, not individual awards accrued. By this criterion, Carrick ought to be regarded as one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s best ever acquisitions.

Before Carrick arrived at Old Trafford from White Hart Lane in the summer of 2006 for a seemingly exorbitant fee in the region of £18.6m[4] as Sir Alex Ferguson’s solitary summer purchase, United had not won the Premier League for three seasons — their longest title drought of the Premier League era.[5]

In Europe, their performances had been even worse — United had not made a Champions League semi-final in four seasons; had not made a Champions League final in seven seasons; and crashed out in the group stages of the Champions League in the 2005–06 season, finishing bottom of their group with six points from six games. Even more alarming was the steady downward trend in their Champions League performances — from the 2001–02 season to the 2005–06 season United’s Champions League record read: semi-final; quarter-final; round of 16; round of 16; and group stage.

Meanwhile, in the preceding two seasons, Chelsea, with Jose Mourinho’s tactical guile and Roman Abramovich’s riches, had won two consecutive Premier League titles and reached the semi-finals of the Champions League. They looked set to dominate English and European football for the foreseeable future.

Since Carrick’s arrival at Old Trafford, United have won four of the last five Premier League titles and made three out of the last six Champions League finals (winning one). This sustained European success is particularly notable because it is something which both Sir Alex Ferguson’s first and second great United sides, for all their domestic dominance, conspicuously failed to achieve — in the first two decades of Ferguson’s reign, United reached one paltry Champions League final.[6]

Carrick has played an integral role in each and every one of United’s four Premier League title-winning seasons since his arrival. In each of those seasons, Carrick started at least 23 of United’s 38 Premier League games — the most of any United central midfielder in the 2006–07 and 2007–08 seasons and the second-most (by just one game behind Darren Fletcher) in the 2008–09 and 2010–11 seasons.[7] Indeed, in the only completed season since Carrick’s arrival in which United did not win the Premier League, Carrick notched up his lowest number of Premier League starts as a United player: 22 in the 2009–10 season.

In Europe, Carrick’s influence at United since his arrival has been even more pronounced. In each of the four seasons in which United made it at least as far as the semi-finals of the Champions League, Carrick started the most Champions League games of any of United’s central midfielders.[8]

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Why, then, has Carrick still not been fully embraced by United’s fans?

I suspect that the answer revolves around his style of play and tactical function.

Carrick isn’t the quickest, doesn’t rack up many assists and is a thinnishly-built, awkward-looking tackler. To top it all off, he displays roughly the same level of commitment to goal-scoring that the Lannister twins demonstrate to obeying society’s legal and moral prohibition of incest.[9]

As for his on-field demeanour, Carrick is quiet and undemonstrative — so, no red-faced shouting of directions at his teammates.[10] In this respect, as in his aforementioned relative lack of speed, thinnish build and ungainly-looking tackling, Carrick is the antithesis of the United legend whose number 16 shirt he inherited — Roy Keane, a combative, energetic, box-to-box midfield general famed for his forceful tackling and equally forceful on-field direction of his teammates. To some observers, it appeared, at first glance, that Sir Alex Ferguson had replaced a fearsome warrior with a lanky university student who’d gotten lost on his way to his cultural geography class.

However, Carrick’s playing style complements, and is arguably a product of, his very peculiar tactical function as a deep-lying playmaker. His job is to play between the lines of United’s defence and midfield, sweeping up in front of the back four whenever United lose the ball and starting plays when United have the ball. It is a role which he not only excels at, but one which no other British central midfielder of his generation is capable of performing to the same level.

It is because Carrick functions as a deep-lying playmaker stationed between United’s midfield and defensive lines that he doesn’t rack up many direct assists — he rarely makes the final pass for a goal because he is typically busy making the second-last, third-last or first pass in the move which led to the goal, as he did for three of United’s four goals against Everton last Sunday.[11]

His agile football brain more than compensates for his relative lack of straight line speed by enabling him to languidly position himself in the right place at the right time to break up opposition attacks, as well as know when to play a simple lateral five yard pass to his midfield partner, when to play a quick, low 20 yard pass into the feet of a deep-lying forward and when to attempt a 50 yard cross-field diagonal ball. This high football IQ, combined with his technical proficiency, allows him to find the space and time to calmly keep the ball and elegantly execute such passes.

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Over 200 years ago, Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson famously signalled the British fleet before the Battle of Trafalgar: “England expects that every man will do his duty”. The men of the Royal Navy did not let their country down, winning a famous victory which secured Britannia’s rule of the waves and laid the foundation for the largest empire the world has ever seen.

On the football pitch, England has been expecting, in vain, for close to half a century now.[12] At a broad level, it is reasonably clear what English fans expect — consistent international team success at European Championships and World Cups. However, English fans’ expectations with respect to individual positions within their club and international sides are a bit more culturally complicated than that.

As Scott Murray eloquently explained in issue zero of The Blizzard,[13] Roy of the Rovers, the enduringly popular English football comic first published in September 1976, embedded the most pernicious of stereotypes deep in the English psyche, namely, that of the all-action, goal-scoring superhero “thundering home one of his trademark Racey’s Rockets in the last minute to save the day.”[14] Consequently,

[w]hile little schemers from Italy dreamt of becoming fantasistas, conducting their team-mates to victory from the centre of the park, while South American youths honed their skills and picked up a few street-smarts in the dusty favelas, hoping to put it all together in a gambeta; thanks to Roy Race, English children spent their formative years sat on their arses being taught a very strange lesson: it doesn’t really matter what you do for 89 minutes, because a superhero will turn up eventually, welt the ball into the net, and you can all go home with your cups and medals.

Although Roy Race himself was a striker, Murray explains that the stereotype he unleashed applies equally to dynamic, box-to-box, goal-scoring central midfielders such as Steven Gerrard and Bryan Robson.[15] Indeed, Robson’s nickname, “Captain Marvel”, is that of a comic book superhero.[16]

So there we have the answer to the question posed earlier: Michael Carrick, a central midfielder whose value is defined by his specialised role within a tactical system, will invariably be undervalued and unloved by a generation of English fans instilled with “a disdain for tactics and organisation” and “a fear of progressive thought” by their upbringing in the comic book universe of Roverland.[17]

Carrick’s curse is that he is atypical for an English central midfielder — an understated orchestra conductor, rather than the all-action comic book hero English fans have been culturally conditioned to expect. Nonetheless, Carrick is typically English in one important respect — he belongs to a long and illustrious line of Geordie technicians, such as Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley; but even they were predominantly final third of the pitch attackers, not centre-circle playmakers.

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Perhaps Carrick’s greatest misfortune as a footballer was to be born in England, rather than, say, Spain or Italy where the particular tactical position he occupies is not only recognised with special terminology (regista in Italy and pivote in Spain), but highly and widely prized.

In Spain, the pivote position has been filled with distinction by the likes of Pep Guardiola, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, whereas in Italy, over the past two decades, one player has towered above all others in the regista position — Andrea Pirlo. The diminutive Brescian spent the last decade guiding AC Milan to Champions League and Serie A titles and Italy to a World Cup; now 32 years of age, Pirlo is currently enjoying an Indian summer at Juventus, having led the Bianconeri to the brink of their first Serie A title since 2002–03.[18]

It should come as little surprise then that Spain’s World Cup- and European Championship-winning midfielders, such as Xavi and Xabi Alonso, frequently praise Carrick. In February 2011, Xavi described Carrick as a “player[] who treat[s] the ball well” and “tr[ies] to play.”

Similarly, in November 2011, Xabi Alonso explained that: “Michael Carrick … makes those around him better, regardless of the fact that he’s not the one who scores the most goals, or a great tackler.” Indeed, Alonso’s praise of Carrick echoed what Alonso’s first coach said of him as a 10 year old playing for his local club side Antiguoko in San Sebastián: “He makes others play”.

This subtle but indispensable virtue was certainly recognised by Carrick’s Dutch manager at Tottenham, Martin Jol: “Michael’s biggest quality is to move play from defence to attack and win the ball. Because of him, other players play better.[19]

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In the summer of 2010, as I stood in a north London pub with some English mates watching England struggle to a turgid 1-1 draw with the United States in the opening game of their 2010 World Cup campaign, I received the following four-word text message from an English mate watching the game in another pub: “Why can’t England pass?”

My very learned and well-travelled English friend — a Cambridge Classics graduate, polyglot, lifelong Spurs fan and true football connoisseur — correctly identified the problem which has plagued England sides for generations.

International football, with its slower pace and lower tempo, places much greater emphasis on ball possession and circulation in the middle third of the pitch than the English Premier League which, with its high-tempo and physicality, underlines the primacy of the two penalty boxes.

However, England struggle to adapt their tactics, playing style and team selection to the different demands of international football. Instead of picking the right team to play a different style of football, England typically staff their central midfield with their best individual players (namely, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, both of whom are box-to-box goal-scorers) and attempt to practise an English Premier League style and tactical system in major international tournaments. This is what Xabi Alonso alluded to when he observed: “Sometimes it seems the English don’t rate those who make the team work rather than standing out themselves. You shouldn’t necessarily pick the best players; you have to have a collective identity.”

So the answer to my English friend’s question — as he well knew when he sent me his flippant, semi-rhetorical text — is quite simple: England can’t pass because they don’t play with a deep-lying playmaker tasked with winning, retaining and circulating the ball; instead, they pack their central midfield with box-to-box goal-scorers. Meanwhile, Spain, the reigning World and European Champions, currently play with not one but two pivotes: Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets.

Carrick — the only Englishman of his generation to excel as a regista in the Champions League — would seem to offer the solution to England’s international woes. But, curiously, Carrick has never nailed down a spot in England’s starting XI — he was in the England squad for both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups but only made one appearance in Germany and never got off the bench in South Africa. He has not played for England since May 2010 and has only managed a total of 22 senior England caps over the course of an international career which started back in May 2001.

The Roy of the Rovers warping of Englishmen’s cultural expectations as to what central midfielders ought to be goes some way to explaining Carrick’s strangely stop-start England career. However, even when England have had an Italian manager in Fabio Capello, Carrick has barely got a look in — he was only capped seven times during Capello’s four year reign.

In current interim England manager[20] Stuart Pearce’s one match in charge thus far, a 3-2 defeat to Holland in a friendly at Wembley in February 2012, England switched from the 4-4-1-1 favoured by Capello to a 4-2-3-1 with newly-appointed England captain Scott Parker and Gareth Barry occupying the two holding central midfield berths.

A 4-2-3-1 system is well-suited to accommodating Carrick’s talents as a regista (being the same system in which Alonso has thrived at club level for Liverpool and Real Madrid and at international level for Spain at the 2010 World Cup) and Parker, with his speed, running and strong tackling, makes for a complementary partner in midfield. But, Carrick was not even selected in the squad for the February friendly against Holland.

Perhaps, an additional explanation for Carrick’s status as an international semi-exile is that he was born in the same year as Xabi Alonso — the finest regista in the world — and, as such, is frequently compared to the Basque maestro. Such comparisons are inevitable but utterly irrelevant — surely, the salient point is that Carrick is the best Englishman in the regista position and that should be sufficient to get him in England’s starting XI. If Alonso is the Rolls-Royce of registas and Carrick a mere Jaguar, then that still makes Carrick England’s best option in that position when the alternative is a souped-up Ford Focus.

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Whilst Carrick’s talents may go unappreciated by some United and England fans, they are certainly recognised by Sir Alex Ferguson who, last month, praised Carrick for his “absolutely superb” form and mental strength.

One thing which is certain is that if, indeed, United clinch a record 20th English league title on Monday night and move two clear of Liverpool on 18, then Carrick will play an important role, sitting in front of United’s back four and managing the tempo of the game with a minimum of fuss.


[1] For United’s first goal: Tony Hibbert’s headed clearance fell to Marouane Fellaini outside Everton’s box, but just as Fellaini was about to receive the ball, the United player in question nipped in and with one exquisite touch of his right boot, passed the ball to Patrice Evra who took a couple of touches before giving the ball to Nani on the left wing; Nani delivered a perfect in-swinging cross with his right foot which Wayne Rooney duly headed in. For United’s second goal: an Antonio Valencia cross from the right wing was only half-cleared by Leon Osman; the ball fell to the United player in question, positioned outside Everton’s box, who, with one touch of his left boot passed the ball to Nani on the left edge of Everton’s box; Nani attempted a pass into Everton’s box which Darron Gibson only managed to clear straight up in the air; Nani won the header against Phil Neville; the ball dropped to Danny Welbeck who sold John Heitinga the dummy and curled the ball into the top corner of Tim Howard’s goal with his right boot. For United’s third goal, the United player in question received a throw-in from Valencia on United’s right wing and exchanged passes with Rafael and Nani before playing a one-touch right-foot pass into the feet of Welbeck who, with his back to goal, played a one-touch right foot pass around the corner for Nani to run onto, take one touch and dink the ball over Tim Howard.

[2] He was not culpable for any of Everton’s four goals.

[3] See, eg, manutd.com message boards; Chris Wright, “Man Utd Hand Michael Carrick New Three-Year Contract”, Who Ate All The Pies, 3 March 2011 (see also the comments at the bottom of the article).

[4] The fact that Tottenham had purchased Carrick from West Ham at the Upton Park everything-must-go relegation fire sale in the summer of 2004 for the bargain basement price of £2.75m only exacerbated the perception that the £18.6m fee United paid two years later was inflated. Within days of Carrick completing his move to Old Trafford, United’s Chief Executive David Gill publicly defended the price United paid for him.

[5] It is easy to forget just how pessimistic many United fans were feeling at this point. Learned football writers, such as Rob Smyth, presented well-reasoned and well-evidenced arguments that United’s dominance of English football had reached an end and that the Ferguson era would end with a whimper. To the dismay of many United fans (who continued to chant his name), Ferguson had just flogged Ruud van Nistelrooy, scorer of 150 goals in just 219 appearances and United’s all-time top scorer in European competition, to Real Madrid for the meagre sum of £10.3m. Daniel Taylor’s This Is The One: Sir Alex Ferguson: The Uncut Story of a Football Genius (2008) brilliantly captures just how negative the mood around Old Trafford was during the 2005–06 season and the attendant enormity of Ferguson’s achievement in recapturing the Premier League title the very next season.

[6] United’s relative lack of European Cup/Champions League success both before and during Ferguson’s reign (at least until the maturation of Ferguson’s third great United side in the 2006–07 season) is the one blot on Ferguson’s otherwise impeccable copybook and still rankles the perfectionist Scot. As recently as April 2011, in the lead-up to the first leg of United’s Champions League semi-final against Schalke in Gelsenkirchen, Ferguson admitted: “we do get envious of the records of other clubs in Europe. We look at other teams’ records and we are trying to get parity with that. We look at clubs like Real Madrid, AC Milan, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Liverpool and we really need to progress quickly to get to that level.”

[7] I compared Carrick’s statistics with those of Paul Scholes, Anderson and Darren Fletcher. I excluded Ryan Giggs from the comparison because he is still sometimes deployed as a winger. Even if Giggs is included in the comparison, his Premier League games started only exceeded those of Carrick in one of United’s Premier League title-winning seasons since Carrick’s arrival: the 2007–08 season in which Giggs started 26 Premier League games to Carrick’s 24.

[8] I compared Carrick’s statistics with those of Paul Scholes, Anderson and Darren Fletcher. I excluded Ryan Giggs from the comparison because he is still sometimes deployed as a winger. In any event, the statement remains true even if Giggs is included in the comparison.

[9] His meagre goal tally of 19 in 270 appearances for United means that he averages a goal every 14.21 games. He has never scored more than six goals in a single season for United and he managed to go the entire victorious 2010–11 campaign without scoring, despite making 44 appearances for United across all competitions. His sweet strike for United’s second goal in their 2-0 league win over QPR at Loftus Road in December 2011 was his first goal in 70 games for United and his first in the Premier League in almost two years.

[10] Hence, the accusation that: “He has no passion”. His demeanour off-the-pitch is similarly unassuming — Ferguson describes him as a “a quiet lad” who is “not the type to trumpet his achievements”; his assistant manager at West Ham, Frank Lampard Senior, described him as “a nice, easy-going lad”; and he spent one summer working as a roadie for his brother-in-law’s rock band, Sound Ex.

[11] See above n 1.

[12] See, eg, James Corbett, England Expects: A History of the England Football Team (2010).

[13] The Blizzard is a quarterly football publication put together by a cooperative of journalists and authors, which features articles by the heavy-hitters of English language football writing (for example, Jonathan Wilson, Andy Brassell, Tim Vickery and Uli Hesse) about the stories that matter to them. The Blizzard contains, quite simply, the best English language football writing in the world and it is available on a pay-what-you-like basis. I urge you to check it out.

[14] Scott Murray, “How Roy Race Ruined English Football” (2011) 0 The Blizzard 43, 44.

[15] Ibid 45.

[16] A recent tribute in the Daily Mail described Bryan Robson as a player “who ranged from box to box as tough-tackling defender and deadly goalscorer”.

[17] Murray, above n 13, 45.

[18] At the time of writing, Juventus are three points clear of AC Milan with four games to play. Juventus were officially stripped of their 2004–05 and 2005–6 Series A titles by the Italian Football Federation as punishment for their part in the Calciopoli scandal. The official Juventus website still includes these two officially revoked Serie A titles in their total count of 29 Serie A titles on the front page of their online Trophy Room; however, their individual web pages for their 2004–05 and 2005–06 Serie A titles each include asterisked one-word footnotes which state: “Revoked”.

[19] (Emphasis added).

[20] The FA released a statement on Sunday 29 April 2012 stating that they have approached West Bromwich Albion’s manager Roy Hodgson regarding the position of England Manager.