Michael Carrick: England’s Overlooked Answer?

With all the drama surrounding the selection of the latest England squad, one notable omission has been almost entirely ignored by the media. Rio Ferdinand’s latest injury lay off has seen John Terry controversially reinstated as captain, and Joe Cole’s terminal decline has opened the door for Matt Jarvis to stake his claim.

Almost nobody has noticed that Michael Carrick has not made the cut. Carrick last featured in a squad for September’s qualifier against Switzerland, and despite being fit and playing a regular part in Manchester United’s season, Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry, Jack Wilshere and Scott Parker get the nod ahead of him.

The consensus is that Michael Carrick is horribly out of form. He hasn’t scored a league goal for United since December 2009, and hasn’t hit the back of the net in any competition this season despite making 33 appearances so far. He hasn’t even registered an assist this season despite being known for his passing.

Are we completely missing the point of Michael Carrick in 2011? Has Carrick changed fundamentally as a player in the way that Paul Scholes has moved from being a prolific second striker to a deep lying playmaker in his later years? Has the artist turned artisan?

Carrick has, by necessity, has had to play a deeper role for Manchester United this season. It is a role that he has been filling intermittently for a few years now, but has found himself mostly used as a more forward-thinking midfielder, as Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher have been preferred in the holding role. With Fletcher short of fitness and form and Hargreaves’ problems well documented, Carrick has represented the least square peg in United’s round midfield hole.

As such, goals and assists, limited in their usefulness at the best of time, are worthless as a measure of Carrick’s effectiveness. Roy Keane said in his autobiography that his job in the great United team of ten years ago was to win the ball and pass it to Paul Scholes. It would be hard to find a better example of a holding midfield player than Roy Keane, so how well is Carrick fitting this mould?

In the recent Champions League second leg against Marseille, Carrick completed a staggering 93% of his passes. For perspective, this is 3% better than Xavi’s completion rate in Barcelona’s stroll in the park against Arsenal, and equal to Iniesta’s contribution in the same game. Whilst nobody would doubt the more attacking thrust of the Barca pair’s work, Carrick is still a vital cog in the machine. When the ball reaches Carrick, he swiftly and decisively feeds it to Scholes, Nani and Rooney, the more talented players. Not to say that this isn’t a talent in itself.

How does he stack up without the ball? Michael Carrick is 49th in the Premiership for tackles by midfielders, which isn’t that impressive, but is still the number one Manchester United player on that list. He’s also out on his own at the top of the Premiership’s interceptions chart, and has a massive impact on United’s defensive record. When Carrick plays, Meanchester United conceed, on average, around 0.5 goals less than when he doesn’t.

Michael’s’ defensive contribution is hugely overlooked. When one of the major problems afflicting the current England squad is the lack of a top quality holding midfielder, why is it that the found-out Gareth Barry continues to fill the role, with Carrick not getting as much as a sniff? Is Scott Parker really a better squad option?

For years, it has been said that England would absolutely kill for a player like Xabi Alonso, and yet when we belatedly find one in our midst he is massively underrated and almost entirely ignored. If we are looking for a genuine break from a central midfield which has, in the past, let us down miserably, then what better option currently than Carrick and Wilshere? Lampard and Gerrard are now declining as footballers and incompatible with each other, Gareth Barry has arguably never been at their level, and Jack Wilshere has looked outstanding every time he has played this season.

So with Carrick still the right side of 30, and looking like he may be about to produce his best, albeit most understated football, it’s time we re-evaluated one of our most under-appreciated players as the top quality holding midfielder that he has become. Otherwise, we may spend the next three or four years tinkering madly to find a partner for Jack Wilshere, whilst ignoring the ready-made option right beneath our noses.

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