Michael Carrick

Not the Face of the Franchise is quietly celebrating one month as an online entity.  As the site mumbles to itself in a remote internet outpost it bravely clings to its mission statement — to write about those often overlooked.  It looks to highlight the work of the under-appreciated.  


Fringe players from several sports have been praised.  Those who have diminished or specialized roles have been heralded.  Six NTFeatures have been filed profiling the under-utilized, the discarded and the largely forgotten. (see Archive)


Michael Carrick is the vice-captain of Manchester United.  He has 34 international caps for England.  


This is a soccer player with a high-profile.  His playing career is one of incredible distinction.  His trophy haul includes five EPL winners medals and denotes FA and League Cup success.  He also is a Champions League winner.  He, on the domestic and European level, is a highly decorated soccer player.


Yet the most obvious — if undeniably clunky — question emerges : Why is Michael Carrick Not the Face of the Franchise ?


Team sports in the modern era seem to effortlessly create superstars.  This can be driven by performance, circumstance and canny marketing departments.  At Manchester United Carrick has found himself playing alongside the likes of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.  There is no shame in these shadows.  United position themselves, with justification, among the elite in world soccer.  They attract and create superstars.


Carrick has been prominent in their success.  He has been an integral part.  He is an important, vital cog in the machine.  But with over two hundred United appearances logged, and his career now firmly in its twilight years, we are left with the sense that at no point was this his team.


A more incredulous and persistent thought seeks to be addressed.  Why does a player of his significant pedigree, without excessive injury issues, play only 34 times for his country over a fifteen year period ?


Carrick is a product of the West Ham United youth program.  This proud East London club, with their enviable tradition of player development, was a fertile pasture where Carrick could grow into the professional game.  His talent was matched with a youthful tenacity that saw him break into the first-team at a young age.  His impressive performance in the heart of midfield was enough to persuade Tottenham Hotspur to acquire him in the advent of the 2000/01 season.  


Two years later Carrick was transferred to United.  The reported fee of over £16 million was viewed with much skepticism at the time.  Even when suitably adjusted to account for the inflation of the modern transfer fee, his level of performance for United has proven the acquisition to be an incredible bargain.  This is not a revisionist ramble to justify a huge investment. By any measure he has been an exceptional servant to the club for a decade.  


Carrick is a central midfielder.  There is an elegance in his game rarely seen in English players.  He looks unhurried in the most competitive areas of the field.  His composure in possession is enhanced with a careful economy of movement.  This is rarely mistaken for laziness.  Carrick is efficient and controlled.  Many players of his, and prior generations, are lauded for their energetic combativeness in midfield.  They tackle hard.  They make their presence felt.  Carrick has this in his skill-set. He is not afraid to use his six-foot-two frame to outmuscle opponents and disrupt their play.  What elevates his game further is intelligence.  


Carrick is somehow able to be reactionary whilst being pro-active.  His athleticism and anticipation allows him to stave off attacking threats before they develop.  He seems to sense where the ball is going to be.  It is rare to see Carrick launch into a desperate challenge because he has typically moved himself into the most favorable position.  The game, or more accurately his game, appears to evolve into a simple geometry.  He plays the angles.


His defensive acumen — and its huge importance to his team — is underpinned with an incredible talent for ball retention.  Carrick is a sublime passer of the ball.  He has an impressive range of distribution yet clearly understands a five to ten yard pass is often the best option in a given scenario.  He has the ability to ping sweeping cross field passes with tremendous accuracy but never forces this.  The pass he selects is invariably the correct one.  The best defense is to retain the ball.  


Now in his mid-thirties Carrick is deployed carefully.  He isn’t called upon every game.  He is a situationally dependent player within the first-team squad.  He finds himself part of the rotation.  His body has not deserted him in any visible way.  His subtle mastery of his position has perhaps afforded him an extended playing career.  He isn’t the star. But it would be wrong to suggest he isn’t appreciated by United’s management and fanbase.  Similar sentiments are almost certainly shared by those connected to West Ham and Spurs.  


But club soccer, particularly at the highest level, can be an unforgiving and relentless environment.  A team such as Manchester United will face challenges on a number of fronts.  There is intense competition domestically and on the wider European stage. Player recruitment and squad development becomes a crucial element and determining factor in their achieved success.  They are a franchise almost duty bound to unearth and invest in the best players available.  Manchester United are not troubled by geographic or financial limitations. For Michael Carrick to remain relevant for so long in this context speaks volumes.


It’s therefore natural to expect a player of this standing, with all his technical and tactical ability, would become to a dominant stalwart of international football.


Michael Carrick has 34 caps for England.  


Carrick had all the tools to have been a consistent high-level performer in the international game.  His progression to England regular was ultimately impeded by others.  This may be seen as an overly simplistic view and perhaps slightly disrespectful towards those he was in direct competition with.      


To be selected to play central midfield for England was as competitive within a crowded environment as the role itself.  


Carrick made his international debut in May 2001.  Since that date England have competed in eight major tournaments — four World Cups and four European Championships — each time advancing through their associated qualification groups.  When you factor in friendly matches it seems incredible that Carrick has not taken to the field in an England jersey more often.  


The players which he found himself competing with most often were Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.  These players amassed 114 and 106 international caps respectively.  They are both slightly older than Carrick and made their international debuts before him.  They were in possession of the midfield berths and showed no desire to relinquish them.  It is worth noting their durability and commitment to playing soccer has led to both continuing to play to this day.


Gerrard and Lampard, the stars of Liverpool and Chelsea, were the ultimate obstacle to Carrick.  Their talent was undeniable.  They were routinely demonstrating it for their clubs.  Both had admirable goal scoring and assist records from midfield.  Their England selection was understandable.


But England routinely failed on the big stage.  The true level of their repeated failure may be somewhere between an actual and perceived shortcoming.  Each exit from amajor tournament was the catalyst for an outraged media demanding change.  The repeated charge was that England needed to evolve.  To develop.  England were predictable.  They lacked the invention or tactical innovation of their international rivals.     


Yet throughout that era those responsible for coaching England’s national team were unable or unwilling to accommodate Michael Carrick. There was a reluctance to explore any addition through subtraction regarding Lampard and Gerrard.  The simple elegance and defensive stability Carrick provided may have offered a greater balance to the midfield.  This may in turn offered additional operational freedom for Lampard or Gerrard.  


The game, even within the timeframe of Carrick’s career, has evolved in such a way that teams — club and international — are far more flexible in shape.  Rigid formations have given way to specialized role players.  Someone with Michael Carrick’s skill set would be highly valued.


When we look to the next generation of English soccer players we see guarded excitement.  Typically this is media generated.  It can also come from the fans themselves.  They understand England have been burned before.  It’s not unusual to see the likes of Manchester City’s John Stones or Everton’s Ross Barkley being held up as golden prospects for the future.  Such proclamations often cite that they are a different breed of player.  They possess a different mentality.  They operate with a different level of technical skill.  They represent a different England.


Such players would do well to emulate Michael Carrick.  He may be the most different of them all.