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A metronome performs the same action at regular intervals. It is both reliable and predictable. If one were to describe a footballer as ‘metronomic’ you could be forgiven for assuming this implies dullness or that the player has limitations. Yet it feels like exactly the right word to describe probably the most important midfielder at United, Michael Carrick – this team’s Roy Keane.
Fresh from arguably his best and most understated performance for the club he’s continuing to prove that his assets are plentiful. Asked, as he often is, to sit in front of United’s defence, Carrick was a nuisance for City. With Cleverley, Rooney and the wingers working hard to pick men up, Carrick was able to concentrate on simply being in the right place at the right time to make a block, tackle or interception.
Having inherited Keane’s old number and being signed the summer after Roy left United, there was, wrongly or rightly, always going to be a level of expectation associated with Carrick. Having a style on the pitch that was really quite dissimilar to Roy’s didn’t help nor did a performance in Rome in the Champions League final. (Mind you, Carrick himself thinks he did ok in that game and to be honest, it felt at the time that he was simply singled out as a scapegoat for a bad performance). Still, it’s fair to suggest that it’s taken Carrick a little while to truly find his niche in the team.
Carrick critics always seem to go to one place more than any other – where he passes the ball. Maybe it’s because United’s midfield has lacked quality in recent years or because fans struggle to see the value in keeping possession over a high-risk pass forwards but it’s always been an odd thing to hold against a player when the numbers have never quite proven it’s the case. More to the point, United are a side who often seek inspiration and craft from out wide so distribution of the ball sideways makes sense for a central player.
It’s therefore rather amusing to read that Carrick has played more forward passes than any other player in the league this season. That said, you can actually explain that quite rationally – Carrick’s role, even in a two man midfield tends to be a deep one, therefore the majority of the time everything is happening ahead of him. Still, plenty of players play a similar kind of role at other clubs and yet Carrick is still the one to come out on top. Sure, he may not score or assist as much as he should but you can be certain he’ll have played a big part in many of the clubs best moves, often playing a vital pass pre-assist.
Even if passing stats for Carrick are pretty, they’re arguably not the most valuable part of what he does. There is a scary consistency about nearly everything he else, to a point where a player once associated with passing, is now associated with positioning – a different kind of awareness. His uncanny knack of being right where opponents don’t want him to be makes him invaluable to United. Time and time again he’s the man doing the hard and dirty work yet in a manner so graceful that it’s often unnoticed. His ability to anticipate a dangerous situation makes you wonder if he’s got a built in early-warning system.
Actually, a comparison with the great Roy Keane is probably as apt as it ever has been. Not because of their style or in the sense of leadership. Rather, Carrick’s made himself invaluable to the side through his intelligence and sheer repetitiveness of every single thing he does – his role in the team makes him a guaranteed starter almost every game. Whether it’s a pass or tackle you can be sure that it’s almost always perfectly executed to the highest level. His perfect partner is arguably yet to be found but putting energy and dynamism around him appears to be the best route for a generally underwhelming midfield. In fact, Keane in his pomp would probably thrive playing with the Carrick of today.
Somewhere there is an irony in all this. Carrick was signed to replace Roy but was nothing like Roy and yet now there are actually similarities between the two. With maturity, he’s given the ‘16’ shirt a new and different meaning – one of intelligence and calculations as opposed to fearsomeness and noise but ball retention, reliability, consistency and a sense of being invaluable remains. He could never be Roy and never tried to be but simply had to be given time for fans to appreciate him for what he is. It’s not uncommon to see him subtly dominate a midfield, just as he did on Sunday at Man City but like Scholes, he won’t be bothered if others are singled out for praise head of him (as they were). Although quiet, he still has the same determination and passion (just look at how he celebrates goals) that Roy had – Michael gets United. It’s just bizarre that United fans have struggled to get Carrick for so long and England are still struggling.
Fortunately, with age, Carrick’s getting better rather than starting to descend over the far side of his peak. Just like any good metronome, you know exactly what to expect from Carrick every time he goes on the pitch. He’s ensured that one can say with near enough complete certainty, United will at some point in the next few years once again have to face the monumental challenge of replacing their number sixteen.