[dropcap]A[/dropcap] couple of weeks ago the fight for a top-four finish in the Premier League looked all-but over, as Manchester United went on a winning run to open up breathing space between themselves and their closest rivals.
Important victories over Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City looked to have secured Champions League football for the Old Trafford club, but Louis van Gaal’s men have failed to tie this up in recent weeks.
Three consecutive defeats, which had not previously happened since 2001, gives a glimmer of hope to Liverpool that the battle might not be over just yet.
United have slumped to losses away to Chelsea and Everton, while yesterday’s 1-0 reverse at home to West Brom will have the fans frustrated.
Van Gaal’s tactics have come in for some criticism, with Wayne Rooney playing in a deeper role and United failing to score in all three of their defeats.
However, the necessity for the England international to feature in the centre of the park is down to the absence of Michael Carrick – who is seemingly the key component in the United system working.
It is not a coincidence that the veteran deep-lying midfielder was in the team for the afore-mentioned victories over top-four rivals and has been absent in recent weeks while the side are getting beaten.
This season Carrick has started 16 Premier League games; United have won 12 of them and lost only once.
The deputies for the 33-year-old in recent weeks are international-quality players but do not possess the rich passing ability that Carrick embodies.
Ander Herrera and Daley Blind have both had opportunities to play as United’s midfield anchor in the former Tottenham man’s absence, but have failed to bring the same level of control as Carrick.
Blind certainly possesses the work-rate, Herrera has the technique; both lack the positional awareness and overarching influence that the understated Englishman has.
In Van Gaal’s 4-1-4-1 formation, the presence of the deep-lying playmaker allows the central midfielders to get forward at will, but the success of the system depends on accurate and quick distribution from the anchorman.
Carrick’s ability to pick the ball up in the centre of the park, either by winning it back or receiving a pass from a defensive team-mate, and looking to free others in space has allowed United to play some of their best attacking football in recent memory in wins over Spurs and City.
However, like yesterday against West Brom, if the distribution is not spot-on, United become somewhat predictable and laboured – even if they have the lion’s share of the ball.
Tony Pulis’ men were able to sit deep, defend in numbers and crowd the midfield, making it nigh-impossible for the hosts to make inroads against them.
As a result, United’s attacking players were forced to drop deep in an effort to receive the ball and influence proceedings.
Despite the likelihood of an influx of new players this summer at Old Trafford, Carrick’s role in Van Gaal’s system seems critical.
His unique abilities are akin to the likes of Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso; even if Carrick does not have the same finesse as his cultured contemporaries.
From a national perspective, England’s reliance and continued selection of all-action midfielders such as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard actually has weakened the team from a footballing perspective over the years.
The fact that Carrick, arguably the most able deep-lying playmaker of an English generation, only has 33 caps remains a mystery and to the detriment of the national game.
In the short-term, United are really struggling without their unassuming midfield general, with a case to suggest that Van Gaal’s tactics do not work without Carrick there to orchestrate play.
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