With Alexis Sanchez now tinkling the ivories at Old Trafford, the focus has quickly turned to Manchester United’s next big move in the transfer market. With their club captain set to retire this summer, the perception is that Jose Mourinho is on the hunt for a new Michael Carrick – a player who can orchestrate the talent ahead of him.
It is the simplest of theories; one midfielder goes out so fill his spot with a similar player. But a carbon copy of Carrick is not easy to find. Fortunately, it is not remotely what Jose Mourinho needs.
In terms of what he offers on the pitch, Carrick has already been replaced. Nemanja Matic was bought from Chelsea last summer and the Serbia anchorman has seen to it that the skipper’s absence has been barely noticed. Carrick has made just a single appearance this season, against Burton in the Carabao Cup, but at no point during the campaign has anyone looked at this United team and concluded that his presence is exactly what Mourinho is missing.
That has not been the case during previous seasons when Carrick’s attributes have been conspicious in their absence from United’s midfield. His positional sense in front of the back four made whichever centre-halves he was shielding feel at ease, but Carrick’s greatest asset was very simple: he passes forward.
He got United further up the pitch, not with lung-bursting dribbles or drives, but by breaking lines with, more often than not, perfectly weighted distribution from deep. He was also clever enough to recognise when that wasn’t possible and, though none of that sounds revolutionary, those traits have become rarer in the modern game where too many midfielders lack either the ability or bravery to be penetrative in their passing, preferring instead to bounce the ball around in areas of little risk. When Louis van Gaal tried to replace Carrick, that is exactly the type he bought in Morgan Schneiderlin.
Mourinho has enjoyed far greater success finding a suitable stand-in for Carrick, with Matic proving to be one of United’s most astute purchases of the post-Ferguson era, even if he is not the most thrilling. The fact that he has played 130 minutes more than any other outfielder for United in the Premier League this season highlights his importance to Mourinho’s machine. Even when it seemed he would be forced into a rest, after picking up a muscular injury at Watford in late November, Matic was still wheeled out four days later to chase Arsenal around the Emirates.
If the job of a holding midfielder is to win the ball either with a tackle or an interception, before passing, ideally forward, then Matic this term is replicating almost identically Carrick’s average contribution over the last three seasons.
Both average 71 passes per game; with 11 of Carrick’s going into the final third, compared to 9.5 of Matic’s. Carrick’s passing accuracy is 88%, Matic’s is 86%. Carrick averages 1.74 tackles per 90 minutes, winning 64%, while Matic averages 1.78, with a success rate of 62%. Both average two interceptions per match. The only stand-out difference is that Matic (37) has attempted 20 more dribbles this season than the less dynamic Carrick since the start of 2015/16.
So, unless Matic was bought as a short-term option in the summer, which seems ludicrous given his age and his ongoing importance to this United team, then they already have their ‘new Carrick’.
What they actually need is another Pogba. Or, perhaps more specifically, a player who can bridge the differences between their talisman and their anchorman.
One of the biggest talking points around United during the last 18 months is how Mourinho can get the best out of their record signing. Pogba has looked most effective when he is allowed more freedom than often offered by the role of partnering Matic at the base of midfield. Peter Crouch gave an insight in what it was like to face the France star but against the likes of Stoke, in a 4-2-3-1, Pogba is not overworked defensively. When United come up against higher quality opposition, he is shackled to an extent by defensive chores.
The names being linked with United suggests Mourinho recognises that he needs a player who complements both Matic and Pogba – someone with the dynamism to defend but the imagination and drive to attack.
Shakhtar Donetsk’s Fred is said to be a target, though Manchester City are seemingly keener, while Mateo Kovacic of Real Madrid and Lazio’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic are also on the list. Jean-Michael Seri is reportedly Mourinho’s leading candidate, with United linked with a move for the Nice midfielder in the coming week.
However tenuously, just about every top club in Europe has been linked with Seri. The Ivory Coast international appeared all set to join Barcelona last summer until the move fell through. Given how upset Seri appeared at the breakdown of his big move, you can bet that he won’t let the opportunity pass again. Nor will his suitors, owing to the fact that – according to some reports, -the £35million buy-out clause in his contract ends this summer.
Whoever Mourinho opts to prioritise and whenever United’s pursuit for a midfielder reaches a crescendo, it certainly won’t be a maestro in the mould of Carrick.
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