The ideal insurance provider - Why Michael Carrick must start against Arsenal
Manchester United's convincing victory over Swansea saw the side dominate the attacking third, all possible thanks to Michael Carrick.
October was a forgettable month for Manchester United. Just one goal and 2 points from four league games – including a 4-0 thumping in Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge – saw them drop eight points off the pace in the title race 10 games into the season.
Often guilty of fluffing promising goalscoring opportunities – Zlatan Ibrahimovic in particular – and an inclination to possession-based football in midfield, United desperately needed change. Their system often appeared to be malfunctioned – every chance was being dealt with by the opposition defence with fair conviction, especially in the home draws against Stoke and Burnley.
The midfield was a wheel missing a cog – a cog that could not just dictate play from defensive midfield to create more openings but could also provide the added layer of cover at the back incase they faced the situation of a counter-attack. Just look at Nemanja Matic for Chelsea or Eric Dier for Tottenham.
Marouane Fellaini was initially assigned with a similar role, but his aggressive nature and tendency to brush elbows across opponents during aerial duels deemed him unsuitable for that job. Morgan Schneiderlin has had his injury problems, while Bastian Schweinsteiger had been seen as a misfit at Old Trafford by Mourinho until his recent call-up to first team training. Ander Herrera found himself hopelessly out of that position in the second half of an embarrassing defeat to Fenerbahce in the Europa League.
Mourinho had a major problem. However, when all his younger prospects failed him, he had one trick up his sleeve. He turned to experience. He turned to a leader. He turned to Michael Carrick.
Carrick’s impact on United’s formation against Swansea
The 35-year old – whose only previous starts of the season have come in the League Cup and the Europa League – was chosen ahead of his younger counterparts in midfield at the Liberty Stadium. Herrera was suspended, Fellaini was given a box-to-box role while Morgan Schneiderlin was resigned to the bench. Though Carrick’s inclusion was no joke – United badly wanted maturity in midfield – what surprised many was how the rest of the team was shaped.
The club’s twitter account displayed the team in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata apparently given wide roles – definitely not first-choice for either player. It was more bewildering considering the fact that the United bench constituted Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial – all of whom are more comfortable operating on the wing than either Mata or Rooney.
Ashley Young was assigned to play right-back, while Matteo Darmian also made the starting line-up in the left-back position, despite Daley Blind being available. It all looked scrambled and for one hour prior to kick-off, it appeared as if an under-pressure Mourinho – who watched the game from the stands – had picked the team via a random draw.
Little did the fans know what was up in store for them.
As the game progressed, it became evident what Mourinho had formulated in the preparation for this game. The veteran Carrick operated nearly as a third centre-back, slotting in between Marcos Rojo and Phil Jones during rare Swansea attacks. The ease and composure with which he was able to guide the ball out of United’s half received high acclaims from pundits and commentators.
His presence in defence not only provided breathing space to the unfamiliar centre-half duo of Rojo and Jones (who, along with Carrick, was also making his first league start of the season), but also issued licenses to Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian to advance high up the pitch and put pressure on the Swans’ full-backs without having to worry about the prospect of a counter-attack.
Young and Darmian, thus, operated as wing-backs rather than full-backs, owing to Carrick’s assured occupancy at the back. The veteran’s world-class vision to provide quality 50-yard long balls to Young and Darmian in order to provide the width in attack was yet another feature of a masterclass display at the Liberty Stadium.
As far as the middle of the pitch was concerned, Carrick allowed the likes of Paul Pogba to play a free role – something he excelled in at Juventus. The Frenchman had the luxury of fielding the famed three-man defence of Bonucci, Giorgio Chiellini and Andrea Barzagli. The team played around him in attack and he was devastating around the edge of the Swans’ box.
Marouane Fellaini – despite his occasional elbowing antics – was influential in helping United keep possession even in the Swansea half thanks to his aerial prowess.
The transformation of full-backs to wing-backs gave Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata the chance to shift base to the middle; their preferred position. While Mata primarily featured in right attacking midfield, Rooney almost operated as a second striker alongside Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The change in position from an initially feared wing role to a forward one worked wonders for the captain, as he bagged assists for both of Ibrahimovic’s goals as United blew Swansea apart with a 0-3 lead on in the opening 35 minutes. Game, set and match.
(Video Courtesy: FullTime Devils YouTube Channel)
Bob Bradley’s side simply succumbed to United’s ruthlessness thanks to the switch from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-5-2, with as many seven players with heat maps predominantly in the Swansea half.
The near-flawless performance was all down to that man, Michael Carrick. Mourinho had played his wildcard to absolute perfection. He would have chuckled to himself at the way he tactically deceived his club’s social media staff when the teams were announced.
How United may shape up against Arsenal with Carrick in defensive midfield
Although Michael Carrick’s performance brought back an air of reassurance to many United followers, what would have baffled them was the absence of the former Spurs man from first team duties for much of the start of the season.
Mourinho has stated age as a primary factor for Carrick’s sporadic appearances, but with United in danger of dropping out of the title race this early in the season, he finally realised the silently paramount impact Carrick has on his entire team’s dynamics.
With an in-form Arsenal visiting Old Trafford on Saturday, Mourinho knows that putting his arch-rival, Arsene Wenger’s side under early pressure will be the key. Full-backs Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal are obviously a notch in quality above the likes of Stephen Kingsley and Angel Rangel, which will entice Mourinho to play with natural wingers to support his ‘wing-backs’ rather than makeshift ones in Rooney and Mata.
Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial could potentially replace them, with Marcus Rashford replacing the suspended Ibrahimovic upfront.
Should he clear his fitness tests, Antonio Valencia could replace Young at right wing-back, while Matteo Darmian could keep his place to deal with Bellerin on the other side thanks to an impressive job in keeping the pacey Modou Barrow at bay in the second half against the Swans.
Pogba and Ander Herrera are likely to occupy the advanced midfield positions to complete what may look like a 3-4-3 formation, instead of a standard 4-2-3-1 as social media accounts may report prior to kick-off. The revision to a 3-4-3, with two wing-backs will allow Lingard and Martial to advance higher up the pitch than what a 4-2-3-1 usually permits.
Mourinho will be pleased by the positive impact Carrick has had in re-shaping his formation to a more attack-objective, pleasing-to-watch breed of football. But will he enjoy similar success against a side head-and-shoulders above Swansea in terms of confidence, technical and tactical dexterousness?