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Michael Carrick | The master interceptor

Michael Carrick's positioning and passing made him a player who will be difficult to replace

Carrick (in red) in action against Arsenal.
Carrick (in red) in action against Arsenal.

When Manchester United beat Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium last month, Michael Carrick, 36, played a big part in both the goals scored by Paul Pogba. But Carrick, who will retire when the Premier League season ends on Sunday, was not even on the pitch when Pogba inspired a comeback for United.

Such was the English midfielder’s influence, however, that in a post-match interview to SkySports, Pogba pointed out how Carrick had been advising him to make late runs into the 18-yard box. “I give the credit to Michael Carrick, because, after the game, every game, he shows me the video and says to make those runs. He’s someone who has helped me a lot…," the French midfielder said.

When it comes to taking one for the team, football can be a complex sport. Players often place individual brilliance first. That’s why it is hard to find players who are willing and able to nurture younger teammates.

Nobody would understand this better than Carrick himself, who started his career at West Ham United in 1998-99 and—when he broke into the Hammers’ first team in the 2000-01 season—shared the space with Paolo Di Canio, Nigel Winterburn, Shaka Hislop and Davor Šuker. These were heavyweights of that Premier League era and Carrick was a newcomer, running and scoring alongside them.

When Roy Keane left United in 2005, Sir Alex Ferguson, on the lookout for a replacement, fought tooth and nail with Tottenham to sign Carrick. Twelve seasons later, it’s clear the investment paid off. For years, Carrick was the fulcrum of the United midfield—he will be difficult to replace.

It was his passing that always stood out.

Michael Carrick lifting the 2017 Europa League trophy
Michael Carrick lifting the 2017 Europa League trophy

Two-footed and ridiculously safe in possession, Carrick never went for the obvious pass. One instance was the 4-3 home win over Newcastle United on Boxing Day in the 2012-13 season—a campaign in which Carrick played some of his finest football. A rain-soaked evening saw United fall behind Newcastle thrice. With the score at 3-3 and time running out, Carrick received the ball and had the option of picking out Robin van Persie (the league’s top scorer that season). But he went for the jugular—a cross that cleared the Newcastle defence and found Mexican striker Javier Hernández. Carrick didn’t miss. Neither did Hernández. It was a win that set the team on course for a record 13th league title.

The numbers testify to why Carrick is called a master interceptor. Since he joined United in 2006-07, he has averaged about 57 passes per match and an average of 48.41 interceptions every season in the Premier League. His former teammate, Paul Scholes, has described Carrick as someone from a different breed. “He brings calmness to the game and parades around the pitch like a Rolls-Royce."

A big part of these numbers comes from his positioning and reading of the game when his team does not have the ball. His interceptions allow others to flourish. One wonders how much the current United side might have benefited from a midfield trio of Nemanja Matic, Pogba and (a younger) Carrick. In a 2016 blog for The Guardian, football writer Jonathan Wilson spoke about Carrick’s “impressive possession" and “intelligence". “There is a psychological aspect as well: Carrick, with his demeanour and his style of play, projects confidence. In a team doubting themselves, his calmness can benefit all around him...," he wrote.

Even some of the Old Trafford faithful feel Carrick has been nothing short of spectacular, so it’s a pity his career has come to an abrupt halt after he was diagnosed with an irregular heart rhythm in November. “Carrick has been a great servant...always with an eye for the forward pass rather than safety. He always made a difference when he played.... I’m sure he will be a great asset to the coaching staff. He may even help to make Pogba a better player," says Danny Walsh, a resident of Manchester, UK, who was a season-ticket holder at Old Trafford from 1986-2015.

At the recent end-of-season awards ceremony, José Mourinho paid tribute to Carrick by handing him his coaching kit and some painkillers. “I have to admit that one of the most difficult things in my 18 years as a manager is when a big player is leaving, it is always very sad," Mourinho said. “So this time we try to do it in a way where I am not sad. A big player is leaving but a big man is staying."

Having Carrick on his coaching team will do Mourinho a world of good. Replacing him on the field, however, will be a difficult and expensive task. They just don’t make midfielders like him any more.

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