On Sunday, Manchester United slumped to their only fifth defeat of the Premier League season as Sir Alex Ferguson’s men went down fighting to a motivated Chelsea side, who now sit third in the standings, four points behind last season's champions Manchester City.
In what was a lackluster game, United had to make do without their midfield general and Michael Carrick, who missed only his 50th league game since arriving at Old Trafford in favour of giving much-needed playing time to youngsters Tom Cleverley and Anderson.
The Englishman’s absence was clearly felt throughout the ninety minutes against Chelsea as the Red Devils were often seen lacking a strong authority in the middle to dictate the tempo of their play.
Cleverley, Phil Jones and Anderson, all put in solid and industrious shifts in their respective roles and the trio did admirably well to nullify any pockets of space for the likes of Juan Mata and Oscar to operate in. Unlike the previous few meetings, this time around, the two Chelsea magicians rarely got an opportunity to exploit United’s often criticized backline as the Red Devils' midfielders had put up a rock-solid plank in front of Nemanja Vidic and co.
|Cleverley tried hard but could not change the game
United's midfield structure and organization was so impactful that virtually all of Chelsea’s scoring chances came through counter-attacks, when usually the host's wingmen failed to track back in time. The build-up to Juan Mata’s winner too, involved substitute Wayne Rooney giving away the ball and subsequently, Ryan Giggs making a mess of a clearance, meaning United were visibly caught off-guard to the Blues' attack.
However, none of the three United midfielders could produce the lacking elements of creativity and stability that Carrick seems to always produce. While Jones might have been solely tasked with sitting tight ahead of the defense, Cleverley and Anderson had disappointing outings in terms of creating opportunities.
"I would choose Carrick," Wenger said. "He is a quality passer. He could play for Barcelona, he would be perfectly suited to their game. He has a good vision and is an intelligent player, and it is for what he has achieved in his whole career as well. It is this year or never for him, just because he is 31 and after, they go down.
I think Carrick is an underrated player in England and sometimes not only should the goalscorer be rewarded but the real players at the heart of the game - Arsene Wenger on who should win PFA Player of the Year
When Fergie’s troops play with Carrick, all his colleagues have a focal point to pass the ball to, from where possession will be assured to be kept in safe hands and United will be able to initiate attacks. Moreover, Carrick’s underrated ability to make pin-point passes and distribute the ball makes the 31-year-old the hub of United’s play. The prime reason for United's breathtaking attacking exploits this campaign is primarily due to Carrick's constant supply of ammunition to men upfront, albeit one cannot ignore Robin van Persie's mercurial form.
|Carrick is the channel for all of United's attacks|
Not to forget, the former Tottenham Hotspur star is equally responsible with his defensive commitments. Against Manchester City at the Etihad and Liverpool at Old Trafford, Carrick completely shut down David Silva and Steven Gerrard respectively with his defensive intelligence, occasional yet strict man-marking and excellent interception skills.
In simple words, Carrick is the under-appreciated deep-lying playmaker at the Theatre of Dreams. The Red Devils’ play runs through Carrick and even though the England international might not be able to get on to the score-sheet or provide assists on a regular basis, he makes the unassailable league leaders tick over the ninety minutes of a football game.
The 2012/13 Premier League season has finally seen Carrick get the massive recognition and plaudits that he truly deserves. The former West Ham youngster was nominated for the PFA Player of the Year award, while also getting a slot in Team of the Year.
The loss against Chelsea acts as just another testament and reminder of how pivotal Carrick is to the English champions’ squad and how hollow the team looks without him.
As Rio Ferdinand said in an interview few months back, Carrick's contributions might be 'swept under the carpet' by the media, but the midfielder is valued highly by each member of the squad, who frankly, actually understand his worth.
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