In few other midfields do the faces of the past seem still so vivid as they do at Manchester United. This week's uninspiring, goalless draw with Marseille prompted the same kind of examination of United's central personnel as virtually every other disappointing big-game result since Roy Keane left the midfield he had recently cut to ribbons in an unaired interview in 2005. Much of this week's media forensics has focused on Darron Gibson, the latest "new Paul Scholes" to stall the old Paul Scholes' retirement, but another question poses itself: What's happened to Michael Carrick?
Carrick is no stranger to skepticism, having been barracked, at one time or another, by supporters at each of his three Premier League clubs. He might consider that there's a compliment hidden in there somewhere -- after all, the Coen brothers might have gotten away with
That doesn't sit right with those who remember him as a youngster at Wallsend Boys Club, which famously produced other northeast talents such as Alan Shearer and Peter Beardsley. He moved to another club well known for its young stars, West Ham United, at 17, and attracted admirers in an FA Youth Cup-winning team that also included Joe Cole. Established in the first team at 19, Carrick's passing range and intelligence drew admiring glances and comparisons to local legend Bobby Moore, whose sense of the field he seemed to share.
In tandem, he and Cole could be a delight, mocking such illustrious opponents as Keane and Patrick Vieira with their telepathic interchanges even as West Ham was haunted by the specter of relegation. Carrick had been touted as Vieira's replacement before the club finally did go down in 2003, but eventually, after West Ham failed to bounce straight back into the top flight, he signed a £3 million ($4.8 million) deal with Tottenham Hotspur, a forgotten man from a club with a debt 10 times as great to service.
His signing was part of the messy (and brief) Jacques Santini era at White Hart Lane, and the soon-to-be ousted manager largely ignored Carrick because director of football Frank Arnesen had signed him and not the striker requested. But Martin Jol, Santini's successor, immediately restored Carrick to the first team, giving him responsibility for controlling the game, quarterback style. The ghosting runs through opponents became less frequent, but the accuracy and timing of his passing routinely unlocked defenses.
It's always harder to crack a safe with the police coming through the window, and against pressing opposition Carrick's safety-first approach -- if he couldn't see a decisive forward pass, he'd send the ball sideways or backward -- divided opinion. Was this studious craftsmanship or passive, pedestrian play? It is this single question that still hangs over any debate on how we should assess his career.
When he joined United in 2006, the £18.6 million ($30 million) price tag was, inevitably, a major talking point. Jol's plans, like his team, revolved around Carrick and he hadn't wanted to sell, and the urgency of Sir Alex Ferguson's desire to add him to a squad that had lost Keane (and, he believed, would soon be without Scholes) had pushed the bidding to five times what Spurs had paid two years earlier.
Tottenham signed St Etienne's Didier Zokora for half the cost and United failed to persuade Bayern Munich to sell Owen Hargreaves. The comparisons with these dynamic, ball-winning midfielders at a time when soccer was fixated on "the Makelele role" were unhelpful, and Ferguson's assertion that "the most important thing is he retains possession" felt like faint praise.
But Carrick made an instant impression -- even, in his Champions League debut against Celtic in September 2006, enjoying the tussle with battling midfielder Thomas Gravesen. Though he was still criticized for his sometimes inhibited showings in an England shirt, he assumed a quiet authority for United whether in domestic or European competition and whoever his partner. He forged a terrific understanding with Cristiano Ronaldo. Ferguson described him as "fantastic," and "instrumental" to United regaining the Premier League title in 2006-07.
Despite several injuries, his contribution to keeping the title for two more seasons (and adding the Champions League in 2007-08) was plain. His metronomic distribution allowed United to carve open lower-placed clubs such as Everton and Newcastle (which conceded 11 goals to United in 2007-08) and didn't fail against the tougher opposition of Europe and the top four. Despite the club's strength, Carrick's absence was usually noticeable, and the fee paid shrunk to look respectable alongside his performances and the price subsequently paid for Dimitar Berbatov.
Not so in the last season and a half, when Carrick's form has veered between very good (when United thumped Arsenal and Portsmouth early last year, say) and very bad (in both fixtures against Liverpool last season). Having to play in central defense for a spell didn't help, but the struggle for consistency is trying supporters' patience. If we can measure a player by the clubs he is linked with, there has been a discernible depreciation in caliber. Nowadays it is no longer Arsenal or Real Madrid being mentioned, but cut-price deals with Sunderland, Fulham and Everton -- where Jack Rodwell's scampering presence has caught Ferguson's eye.
Some date Carrick's waning influence to May 2009, when Barcelona swatted United aside in the Champions League final. Up against Xavi and Andres Iniesta and playing through injury, Carrick endured an evening that must still wake him in a cold sweat. Perhaps that will come to mark the beginning of the end for him at United, but it also highlights how inextricably Carrick's role is tied to the form of others. He was no worse than his teammates -- Anderson and Ryan Giggs disappeared almost entirely -- but was in a position to bear the brunt of that collective failure.
The derision that he has attracted is not all someone else's fault, but any player depends on those around him and a facilitator such as Carrick even more so. When people questioned his arrival at Old Trafford, Ferguson said: "You sign a player for what he can do, rather than what he can't do." And what Carrick could do, very successfully, was shine the spotlight on others. Goals could so often be traced, sooner or later, back to him. Only when the rest of the team is performing consistently well can we genuinely tell what, if anything, has happened to Michael Carrick.