By Greg Stobart
The news that Michael Carrick faces up to six weeks out with an Achilles injury represents an undoubted blow to Manchester United, who had just begun to rediscover some form and fluency under new boss David Moyes.
The Scot has overseen a nine-game unbeaten run that has put the champions back in reach of the teams at the top of the Premier League and on the brink of qualifying for the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Carrick has played a key role in the recovery after some early teething problems for Moyes, with the 32-year-old playing in 10 of United’s 11 league fixtures and three of their four European fixtures.
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United had been managing the injury carefully - largely through rest, painkillers and pool work - and there was concern within the training ground last week that he would be unable to play in Sunday’s victory over Arsenal.
The decision itself for Carrick to take a lay-off was primarily driven by the player himself and timed for the international break so as to minimise the impact on United.
In a World Cup year, with no sign of improvement and extended rest the only remedy barring an operation, the club had little choice, especially with Carrick himself concerned that his performances have dropped from last season.
Carrick had an injection on Tuesday to reduce swelling in the area and will now miss the crucial Christmas period before returning to action in 2014.
But perhaps United could have strung more out of their midfield lynchpin were it not for the glaring weaknesses in the squad.
The farcical summer transfer window and lack of form and fitness has led to an over-reliance on the likes of Carrick and Robin van Persie, who has struggled with injury problems of his own and pulled out of the Netherlands’ friendlies against Japan and Colombia with groin and toe complaints.
There have been murmurings of discontent relating to Moyes’ training methods, with sessions far more intense than under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Van Persie, certainly, feels he has been overtrained, but Moyes is following his own path and could point to the form and sharpness of Wayne Rooney as evidence for its success. The England striker has described training as “so hard” but is playing as well as ever before in a United shirt.
And few could blame the new United boss for continually selecting Carrick and working him into the ground given the paucity of viable alternatives.
The Scot clearly identified the age-old midfield problem on his arrival, but the club’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, failed to agree deals for numerous targets including Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara and Ander Herrera.
Marouane Fellaini has been far from an instant hit since his deadline day £27.5 million arrival from Everton, Tom Cleverley has struggled for form and fitness while Anderson appears to have no long-term future at Old Trafford.
Now, Moyes will have to lean on his squad. Fellaini must show why he was made the club’s marquee summer signing while the return of Darren Fletcher - who played for the under-21s last month - would provide a welcome boost.
Ferguson was able to grind out victories in the first half of the season while regularly rotating his squad, but Moyes has not had the luxury, especially after the club's worst start to a season in 24 years.
The pressure of having to win every week, the regularity of fixtures and the reliance on certain individuals has left United’s squad stretched to breaking point by mid-November.
Carrick’s extended absence reflects more than anything on the failures of the club’s summer transfer strategy.
Someone else - most probably Fellaini - will have to step up or the summer farce could again come back to haunt United before the cornerstone of their midfield returns in the New Year.