Could Michael Carrick be Paul Pogba's ideal midfield partner at Manchester United?
If you surveyed football fans from all four corners of the country and asked them to sum up Jose Mourinho’s managerial style in one word, ‘ruthless’ would rank quite high on the list of responses. ‘Win-at-all-costs’ is another phrase that would immediately come to mind. Yet, with the exception of his treatment of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mourinho has been quite passive in the fledgling weeks of his time as Manchester United manager.
One would have expected more radical change, perhaps involving a few high profile players being dropped, and a clearer sense of who his favourites were in the United squad. At present, however, it seems as if the former Chelsea boss is using the start of this season to assess his squad without interfering too much. He has not stamped his authority nor shaped his team in his own image just yet.
True enough, it is only late September, but Mourinho is not a manager who tends to hang around and take a long term view. As he himself has admitted, getting the players to free themselves of the positional shackles imposed by Louis Van Gaal could be a long process. It may be that Mourinho wants to let them players get over their van Gaal ‘hangover’ before peppering them with his own instruction. One area of the team he has been reluctant to change is central midfield, with Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba his preferred pairing.
On first glance, the pair are the type of physical specimens you associate with Mourinho’s sides. From a tactical perspective however, there is a real lack of defensive instinct. Both have more experience further up the pitch; Fellaini spent the latter half of his Everton career as a second striker and was used in this capacity by Van Gaal. Pogba played on the left of a central midfield trio for the majority of his time at Juventus, with Andrea Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio alongside him. Both Watford goals yesterday come via cut backs from the by line to the edge of the box, into areas where a holding midfielder should patrol.
With the ball, Fellaini is an odd fit for a side that has as much possession as United. His individual performances this season have been quite good; he has a pass completion rate of 90% and averaged seven defensive actions per game. That said, he averages only 66 passes per game. However, it is hard to escape the feeling that he is not the right type of defensive midfielder for a club of United’s stature. This role has changed a great deal in the past decade. When Mourinho was starting out as a manager, many of the top sides had destructive players in their midfielder who were tasked solely with breaking up opposition attacks. Javier Mascherano, Gilberto Silva, Claude Makelele and Gennaro Gattuso four notable examples.
Nowadays, the best teams in Europe tend to have more constructive, directional players in this position; Sergio Busquets, Toni Kroos and Xabi Alonso. ‘Quarterback’ is another term for this job, coined from American Football. United have had success by building their midfield around Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes in the past. There are many factors behind this change in tact, with one being the stricter laws when it comes to tackling. Also, the need for a player who can receive the ball under pressure and take care of it has become all the more important because of the number of teams who press high and effectively. It becomes difficult to carry a midfielder whose role is purely defensive.
Carrick is extremely good at playing against a press, with his first time pass ‘around the corner’ something of a trademark. It is slightly concerning that a 35-year-old is looking as if he might be the answer after three league defeats, but he is the type of player that will benefit Pogba. The Frenchman is at his best when running, either with or without the ball. He is a competent passer of the ball of course, but you do not want him getting tied down helping United to build play from the back. Ideally, United’s holding midfielder should be finding Pogba in dangerous positions, rather than world record signing trying to pick passes to others. So much of United’s midfield setup is skewed by the continuing presence of Wayne Rooney, but that subject needs an article all of its own.
Pirlo allowed Pogba the freedom to avoid the bread and butter business of build-up play, and focus his energies on producing blockbuster moments in the last third. Mourinho is not going to pluck a player like Pirlo from thin air, but in Carrick he might have a viable short term solution. Ander Herrera and Morgan Schneiderlin, though different from Carrick, have failed to nail down a starting spot since arriving at Old Trafford. Deep lying midfield is likely to be the area where Mourinho makes his next United signing. Until such time, he may want to break open the glass on the ‘In Case Of Emergencies’ option that is Carrick.
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