It’s been a strange season for Manchester United.
Louis van Gaal was given a blank cheque in the summer to mop up David Moyes’ mess from the previous campaign. In came Ander Herrera, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao to make United’s front-line look like one only possible on a FIFA video-game. However, there were still question marks surrounding United’s lack of defensive quality, and how the club would cope with losing stalwarts Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra.
Fast-forward to March and United should consider themselves lucky to be occupying the Premier League’s 4th place position. Their attackers haven’t produced the expansive, free-flowing football we expected and their patchwork defence has been shaky all year. But for the sensational form of David De Gea, United would in a position similar to the one that Moyes left them in.
The fact that van Gaal has used 21 different defensive combinations this season says it all. Either as a flat back 4 or a back 3 with wing-backs, United have struggled to find any sort of solidity at the back.
What has remained a constant figure regardless of van Gaal’s formation is the use of a deep-lying midfielder. The role requires sitting in front of the backline and breaking up opposition play, while also providing a link between defence and attack via penetrating passes. Van Gaal has deployed two players to occupy this role throughout the season; Daley Blind and Michael Carrick.
Carrick has split opinion amongst fans over the years. Whether you like him or not, the fact that he was a consistent member of the United team for over 8 seasons under Sir Alex Ferguson speaks volumes. Carrick silenced some of his critics during the 2012/13 season where he was nominated for the PFA Player of the Year Award and is now considered a senior member of the United team.
The former Tottenham man’s passing ability is second to none. You name the pass, and Carrick has it in his locker. The fact that he played alongside Paul Scholes in the heart of United’s midfield for a number of seasons will have contributed to the development of his excellent distribution.
When van Gaal came to United, he brought Daley Blind with him. Blind was a regular in the Netherlands side under van Gaal and had an excellent World Cup campaign, often playing as a left wing-back. However, his best position, one which he played regularly at previous club Ajax and the one he has looked most comfortable in at United this season, is the defensive midfield role.
At £14 million, Blind was bought with the future in mind. There is no doubt that he has all the attributes to one day replace Carrick as United’s midfield pivot. However, due to the form of Carrick, the Dutchman has often played as a centre-back or left-back, and has adapted perfectly to these roles.
The only chances Blind has had in the role have been when Carrick was out of the side with an injury. This shows that Carrick is van Gaal’s first-choice in the role and deservedly so. He was appointed United’s vice-captain following Darren Fletcher’s departure in January, highlighting how much van Gaal values the England international.
Carrick has occasionally filled in at centre-half for United, and hasn’t looked out of place there either. His exceptional reading of the game paired with his range of passing means he has looked accomplished at the heart United’s backline. It might be a position Carrick could end up playing more regularly as he gets older, especially if Blind makes the midfield position his own.
Blind and Carrick have only started 5 games together for United, and not once have both played in midfield. Most recently against Liverpool, Carrick was chosen as the midfield pivot and Blind played at left-back. Because they are similar midfielders, it means van Gaal can only start with one or the other in that position. Playing 2 holding midfielders would mean sacrificing one his attacking options such as Di Maria, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney or Robin Van Persie, which is understandably something van Gaal doesn’t want to be doing.
In the short-term, Michael Carrick remains Manchester United’s go-to man. The fact van Gaal has awarded his vice-captain a one-year contract extension highlights his importance to the club. But at 33 years of age, van Gaal accepts Carrick won’t be performing at the highest level for much longer.
Blind is very much seen as the heir to Carrick’s thrown. He is showing potential to not only replace him in the future, but to turn into a better all-round player than Carrick. This season Blind has contributed more goals and created more chances than Carrick has. The Dutchman is only 25 years old, so he has time to develop his game. For now though, United fans should just be pleased they have such strength in one the most important areas of the field.