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Humbled twice in three years by Barcelona, injuries to Cleverley & Fletcher and a lack of funds to buy Wesley Sneijder have thrust responsibility on a man who has become crucial

ANALYSIS
By George Ankers

Arriving at Manchester United for £18 million and taking the No.16 shirt previously worn by Roy Keane, Michael Carrick was always going to have to go some distance to impress.

At the end of the third year of an Old Trafford career too often comprised of promising spells and mediocre troughs, his performance in the 2009 Champions League final was widely panned, a woeful game against Barcelona seen as a showing-up of a player not at a high enough level for a club of such stature.

It was in sharp contrast to the statement just days before that match from opponent Xavi, who had described him as a "complete player", but now there is little doubt remaining that the Spanish master knew what he was talking about, and yet Carrick might not even have had an opportunity to prove as much this season.

The midfielder signed from Tottenham in summer
HUMBLED BY BARCA AGAIN IN 2011

 PLAYER RATING
5.0 Rarely loses his composure but in such exalted company his deficiencies came to the fore. Subbed midway through the second half as the midfield battle had clearly been lost.
2006 as the only purchase made by the club in the entirety of that season, which itself may have been a factor in the relative ambivalence that has often characterised the fans’ reaction. A lone, expensive signing lends himself to more concentrated scrutiny.

Though never short of first-team chances, Carrick was most ubiquitous in that first season, playing almost every match alongside Paul Scholes to good effect (United won the league, the first of three in a row).

He was still seen, however, as more of an advanced midfielder, getting well forward in support of the front line, with Scholes in the process of adopting his more deep-lying role as age became a factor.

The deeper position is Carrick’s true home but despite the veteran’s involvement being increasingly reduced in recent seasons, the former West Ham graduate failed to prove as much. The criticism of that first Barcelona disappointment was arguably the catalyst for two lean years, prompting many to claim that his days at Old Trafford were numbered.

Last summer, at least temporarily, marked the end of Scholes’ reign as the king of the United midfield. The former Tottenham man had had another poor game in a Champions League final against Barca and all the talk of the close-season that followed was of breaking the bank for a Dutchman to fill Scholes’ shoes rather than seriously considering promoting from within.

Wesley Sneijder’s name was constantly bandied about and, while English talent such as Phil Jones and Ashley Young were recruited, talk also surfaced of Everton’s Jack Rodwell, some fans suggesting that Carrick should be used as a makeweight in such a deal.

While never really a realistic likelihood, that a clearly talented player at what should be his peak age was being talked of in such a manner spoke of his struggles.

But the Red Devils, as it turned out, could not afford to meet Sneijder’s wage demands. A central midfield widely regarded as requiring recruitment wasn't bolstered. Great young hope Tom Cleverley was soon injured and key man Darren Fletcher was first inhibited and then ruled out indefinitely due to ulcerative colitis, Anderson too finding himself on the sidelines.

Responsibility fell to Carrick rather by default, and
THE RENAISSANCE EVER SINCE

 CARRICK SEASON STATS 2011-12
GAMES STARTED
GAMES AS SUBSTITUTE
GOALS
ASSISTS
24
2
2
2
he accepted it.

His success this season has been based very simply on his great strength – calm passing. Today’s Carrick does not look to needlessly force the issue as he tried to with aimless diagonal balls in the 2009 final. He sticks instead to unerringly supplying those around him, keeping everything moving. His closest comparison, Sergio Busquets, is ironically to be found in a Barcelona shirt.

It is perhaps that continental quality, of being happy to pass sideways or backwards rather than seek directness for directness’ sake with the traditional English vigour, that is most likely why he remains largely an unsung hero on these shores despite this campaign’s excellence.

Carrick's recent overlooking by England is similarly confusing. A touch of Busquets-style class would seem an invaluable asset at international level, particularly when comparing form at both levels of the game to his apparent rival, Gareth Barry. Whoever inherits the Three Lions chieftainship must surely have an eye on the United midfielder.

"I think it's time Michael became the pivotal player of our team," Sir Alex Ferguson said in December, and it is already the case. Cleverley and even Scholes have come back but Carrick is firmly established and is very much the reason why the 37-year-old can play a part at all. His stability in the deep role allows the veteran to rest his legs for the moments when he needs them.

Carrick has finally made himself the indispensable £18m footballer that his transfer from Tottenham implied. Now he travels back to White Hart Lane again on Sunday as the vital cog in the United midfield, the conduit through whom the rest of the team interact with each other.

As his form grows more recognised, the 30-year-old can expect to be targeted for pressure by opponents seeking to shut down the entire Red Devils midfield at its base. How he deals with such tactics may prove key as United look to hold their nerve in the Premier League title race.

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