English football has a proud history of midfielders, most of the similar type – hard, strong. It’s amusing that they failed to recognise the kind of midfielder which could’ve landed them international success. Michael Carrick was one of a kind.
“You can never make the same mistake twice because the second time you make it, it’s not a mistake, it’s a choice.”
― Steven Denn
The state of English football in the 2000s can only be described as a self-inflicted wound. It had a bloody nose, a cracked skull, and a concussion obtained by running headfirst into the same brick wall over and over. Nobody could deny that the English midfield had stagnated beyond a point of no return, nobody but the very beings in the centre of said murky stagnation. There was an identity crisis in an area of the pitch meant to control the game and take it to the opponent. While the Premier League was seeing an influx of European coaches, ideals and tactics; none of these percolated through to the national team. There was a tactical revolution sweeping the lands, and the defensive midfielder was the bedrock of this change. Meanwhile, the medieval managers of England stuck to their tradition of deploying box-to-box midfielders, and their cavalry included players like Lampard, Gerrard and Ince, who could pound every blade of grass on the pitch, and when they couldn’t get close to the ball, pound the opponent’s Achilles into submission. Albert Einstein appeared in their dreams screaming ‘Insanity’ at the top of his voice, even as England expected different results by repeating the same self-defeating patterns. They ignored the type of player who could make a difference.
English football chose to remain second grade compared to the top continental teams by not recognising a gem of a player, not just once, but twice. As irony would have it, both players plied their trade at the same club. They won multiple titles at the same club, but the bigwigs at the Football Association couldn’t care less. Let’s face the facts though. In the face of Lampard’s industry and Gerrard’s machismo, the elegance of Scholes and Carrick had no place, surely. While the former hung up his boots with the departure of Sir Alex at Manchester United, Michael Carrick is set to lower the curtains on a glittering career at the end of the 2018 football season.
Forget football lovers across the globe, Carrick has polarized opinion even among the Mancunian faithful throughout his time at Old Trafford. They say the number seven jersey at Manchester United carries a lot of weight owing to its history. Carrick would beg to differ, having inherited the number sixteen from a fiery Irishman who stepped onto the field with the sole intention of snapping an opponent in half. Not to say Roy Keane was a one-dimensional, ankle-breaking pit bull; he just happened to be from Cork, really. He was also one of the finest passers of the football to boot. He was a captain who would take the game by the scruff of its neck and turn it around with ferocity and precision, wrapped in a furry-eyebrowed stare that would turn Medusa to stone. When Carrick picked up this jersey in July of 2006, little did he know of the expectation and judgement that would come with it.
Michael Carrick was the complete antithesis of the Irishman. Carrick’s energy was the soft pop of the cork of a bottle of Pinot Noir, while Keane was a round of Flaming Leprechaun’s Fiery Cinnamon. Make no mistake, Carrick was a great tackler of the ball; but one who used tackling as a last resort, with a sigh in his head combined with self-reprimand for letting the situation get out of hand by not intercepting the ball first. Keane tackled with an enthusiasm bordering on the manic, then glared at his fallen opponent with disdain for his weakness.
As the years went by, the voices of dissent kept rising. Carrick’s approach was labelled as lazy, which had more to do with the expectation of swashbuckling football imbibed in the supporters’ psyche, rather than an understanding of Carrick’s skillset. Without understanding, there can never be appreciation, and Carrick remained one of the most misunderstood English players of his generation. While the England national team made one pitiful attempt after another at World Cup glory on the shoulders of a disjointed midfield, Michael kept dictating the tempo of one title-winning squad after another at Manchester United. The athletic midfielder was commonplace in English football. Now, a midfielder who could receive a pass on the half turn with one foot, and effortlessly release it with the other to a teammate in a better position? It was something only Carrick could do, and that too with a simplicity which belied the cerebral nature of his style of play. England’s loss would be Manchester United’s gain.
Supporters wanted to see the Michael Carrick from Manchester United’s 7-1 demolition of Roma in the Champions League. Ghosts of Roy Keane hung around every performance, and he simply could not do enough to win them over. Their only barometers for a midfielder’s success were goals, assists, and an authoritative presence in the middle of the pitch, served with a hefty dollop of crunchy tackles on the side.
“I’ve always seen myself in Carrick. He could play in the Spain national team. And in United he has been a very important player.”
― Xabi Alonso
However, in a sport where the physical aspect has become far more prominent in recent years, Michael Carrick could not be phased. He kept doing what he was best at – facilitating the facilitator. Every move on the pitch was made with only one underlying characteristic. Efficiency. From his long strides during warm up, to the stiffness of his arms by his side as he meandered around the pitch with two additional eyes in the back of his head; Carrick has been the football equivalent of the conductor to a band which, at their best, played some Metallica. Carrick was breaking lines with a single pass long before the cosmopolitan crowd took notice and accredited him for it. The economy with which he recycles possession and helps launch those lethal counterattacks Manchester United are known for is something only a handful of players are capable of, and not just in the Premier League.
When weather channels forecast visual imagery of impending disasters in the form of tropical cyclones, all focus lies on the swirling mass of condensed moisture and the accompanying destruction it brings. As per the phenomenon, there is a structure at the dead centre of the cyclone, around which the monstrous winds rally. Surprisingly, the eye of the cyclone is a region of eerie calm, wherein the conditions belie the true power of the cyclone.
For the juggernaut that was Manchester United running through team after team in the 2012-13 season of the Premier League, Michael Carrick was at the centre of this annihilation. The consistency and serenity with which he intercepted opposition attacks and released Manchester United back at them was a sight to behold. The six-foot-two Geordie projected a sense of calm and confidence which only he is capable of. In spite of the heroics of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, it was Michael Carrick who was unanimously chosen as the Players’ Player of the Year at the club’s annual awards ceremony in 2013. This is no ordinary honour. Nothing escapes the eyes of your teammates as they trudge together through a season-long quest of training sessions and matchday performances.
If we factor in the kind of praise that has been lavished on Carrick by top players and managers, it is plain as daylight that we’re looking at a special player. Guardiola remarked that Carrick was at the level of Xabi Alonso in Munich and Sergio Busquets in Barcelona. Of course, many consider Pep’s words to be the ramblings of an idealistic lunatic; but we’re talking about a player-turned-manager who knows the importance of the deep-lying playmaker and has been instrumental in the insertion of Sergio Busquets at the centre of Barcelona’s trophy-winning carousel. It is no surprise that there are talks of Carrick joining the coaching staff at Manchester United; after all, he is an excellent reader of the game.
“I’m not one for promoting myself. I just play my football.”
The last remaining member of the 2008 Champions League winning team has made it this far only because of his professionalism and his dedication. The current crop at Carrington look unforgivably weak in comparison. With the exception of a world-class goalkeeper, not a single player from the current squad would find a place among the double winners of 2008. Quality of the players aside, the current squad also lacks the mentality to go toe to toe with teams in the top tiers of European football.
A majority of football players simply have jobs. Players like Carrick have careers. Carrick has never dabbled in eccentricities which seem to be the highlight of modern-day footballers; neither has his commitment to his profession ever wavered. You have flashy, headline-worthy behaviour; and then you have the quiet class of a Rolls Royce (as the Ginger Ninja once labelled Carrick). Temperament over image has been the cornerstone of Carrick’s career, and Manchester United have only been richer for his service since 2006.
I’d give an arm and a leg to see Michael Carrick play every week at Manchester United for another decade, even two. Time spares no one though, and everybody succumbs to the demands of an aging physique. Carrick’s time at United is up, and his elegance at Old Trafford will be sorely missed. The squad no longer has a player of his calibre, and I pray United don’t suffer for it. Personally, it will be a hard time coming to terms with his departure. Hipsters flock to week-long silent meditation retreats in search of meaning and peace. Me? I will settle for a glimpse into Michael Carrick’s mind, the last remaining anechoic chamber amidst the cacophony of English football.