It is so long since Manchester United lost a game Michael Carrick took part in, the stadium in which it happened no longer exists. Ok, so it was West Ham’s recently-closed Upton, Park but the fact that United have had such a good record with the midfielder in the side since that night in May 2016 deserves greater exploration.
The decision by Jose Mourinho to exclude Carrick from the United line-up against Stoke City on Saturday had many Reds supporters taking to social media to decry the lack of a player their club continue to struggle without.
Carrick has played in 19 games in all competitions since the 3-2 loss which brought down the curtain at the Boleyn Ground and United haven’t lost a single one of them, while 16 have ended in victory. In the Premier League this season alone, United have collected 21 points in Carrick’s nine starts compared to 20 earned in his absence.
These are no coincidental numbers either. The 35-year-old’s ability to dictate the tempo and balance of a game has had a huge effect on Mourinho’s side this term. After the Portuguese had originally made a habit of overlooking the former England midfielder, Carrick’s promotion back into the side in early November led to an upturn in United’s form.
While they had had little trouble imposing their will on opponents without the former West Ham and Tottenham star, they had largely been unable to turn their superiority into palpable pressure. There is a difference between possession and dominance, and Carrick in many ways personifies the chasm.
Not for the first time without Carrick in their side this season, United struggled to play the game at the kind of pace and tempo which would have truly exploited the gaps Stoke were unable to plug at the back. There is no doubting that he is nowhere near as mobile as he once was, but his ability to impose his will on the game is not to be underestimated.
And it is when he is not in the side that Carrick’s worth is most obvious. As United largely bypassed the midfield and looked for Marouane Fellaini’s knock-downs on Saturday, the pining for Carrick grew. With every sign of a lack of cohesion between the midfield third and the attacking segment, there was a question to be asked about his absence.
When Carrick has started this season, United have averaged 2.38 goals from 14.25 shots and 56.6 per cent of possession. Without him, they score just 1.28 per game despite having almost 19 shots and more than 60% of the ball. United might get into more shooting positions without him, but the quality of chances clearly rises when he is present. There can be no doubting that Carrick makes them tick on the ball in a way no other current United player is able to.
Given that he is 35, Carrick will eventually need replacing, and perhaps as soon as this summer. But in the meantime, he needs to be playing as often as his body allows. United look an infinitely better side when he plays, and the results generally reflect that. And given that they have left themselves playing catch-up in the race for Champions League football, they cannot afford to go without him too many more times this term.