Can England utilise Michael Carrick's qualities as well as Manchester United do?
Two strangely similar stats clashed at Anfield on Sunday. Since Liverpool had switched to a 3-4-2-1 formation against United at Old Trafford in December, they had picked up 2.36 points per game as opposed to 1.6 in matches before that.
And, before kick-off, in league games in which Michael Carrick had played an hour or more this season, Manchester United had picked up 2.31 points per game as opposed to 1.63 points when he had not. As it was, it was the Carrick factor that won out, even though he himself didn’t have his best game.
So why is Carrick so important to United, so obviously so that, having been left out of the 2014 World Cup squad, he is back in Roy Hodgson’s England squad?
There are probably a range of factors at play, not least his experience: in a defence that, partly for tactical reasons and partly because of injury and suspension, has rarely been settled this season, the presence of the 33-year old brings a sense of composure and authority.
But he also seems a particularly good fit for Louis van Gaal, who has described him as being “a coach on the pitch”, a player who organizes and cajoles. Van Gaal has always liked a deep-lying playmaker in his sides, whether a centre-back who steps out from a back four as Frank Rijkaard did at Ajax or a player who sits just in front of the defensive line as, say, Stijn Schaars did at AZ Alkmaar.
With the possible exception of Daley Blind, who is still adjusting to English football, Carrick is the only player in the United squad with both the positional awareness and the range of passing to take that role.
Of the players at United who can operate as a central defender, or as a very deep-lying midfielder, Carrick, at 89%, has the best pass completion rate – although it’s intriguing that Chris Smalling, a player who seems to have blossomed under Van Gaal since his sending off in the Manchester derby, should be second at 88.5%.
But it’s more than that. A lot of players that pick up the ball so deep end up with good pass completion rates because they never look to do more than shuffling the ball 10 yards on to another defender or a midfielder who then attempts something more difficult. Carrick, though, averages 5.7 long balls per game, more than any other United outfielder (of 114 long passes he’s attempted this season, 91 have found their target).
Often those are exquisitely weighted passes into the path of an on-rushing team-mate; against Tottenham, for instance, he played one floated pass into the box for Juan Mata to run onto, creating a shooting opportunity. It was a ball that required an extraordinarily precise trajectory so that it dropped almost onto a moving player’s foot. Carrick is registering good pass completion rates despite playing difficult passes.
Slightly surprisingly, Carrick doesn’t score that well in terms of ball-winning. He only averages 1.4 tackles per game, the 12th highest figure at United this season (although it is more than Smalling) and 1.4 interceptions per game, also the 12th highest figure. The 0.8 aerial duels he wins per game, meanwhile, leaves him only 17th.
That, perhaps, suggests why he is better deployed as a central midfielder or as one of three central defenders than in a defensive pair. And there is also something to be said for his positional sense; just by taking up the right position, Carrick can stymy attacks, forcing opponents to change their angle of approach or to attempt riskier passes.
It’s little wonder that Van Gaal was so keen to get Carrick to sign the contract extension he agreed last week. He’s a player who seems always to have had to fight for recognition in England – and it is true that he was badly spooked when United lost to Barcelona in the 2009 Champions League final. But it’s also true that when Carrick has played an hour or more in the league this season, United have lost only once.
At the moment, he feels a vital part of the Van Gaal project and if his form continues, he may yet become central to England’s plans for Euro 2016.