When the PFA’s shortlist for the Player of the Season was announced earlier today there was much debate, as always, over who deserved to be named and who had been unfairly left out, but from the neutrals, it was Michael Carrick’s name that seemed to cause the most surprise. In support of this, on the BBC Sport website they have listed the six players under the headline: “Carrick on Player of the Year list”.
For United fans, the surprise wasn’t that Carrick is considered one of the best players in the league this season, because we get to see what a difference he makes to us week in week out, but that he’s actually gained some recognition for it. The other five players shortlisted are attacking players, as is usually the case, with goalkeepers, defenders, and midfielders to a certain extent, rarely getting the acclaim they deserve. Over the past 20 years, John Terry, Roy Keane and Paul McGrath are the only players to have won the award who don’t play further up the pitch. The recognition for Carrick is even more surprising because so many people, some United fans included, don’t value his contribution.
This is in contrast to the way people view Robin van Persie, who has been an excellent buy for United, and we’ve seen our club, again, labelled a “one man team”. It seems as though United are always a one man team according to rival fans, it’s just that the one man changes year after year. How fortunate we are to so regularly have one player who is capable of winning us the league, eh? It’s incredible then that during the Dutchman’s recent “drought”, with his last goal coming on February 10th (12 points clear) until he scored a penalty against Stoke on April 14th (12 points clear), United managed to maintain their lead.
Of course, I’m not trying to diminish Van Persie’s value, but like any top team, when your best player isn’t performing you have other players who can pick up the slack. The hattrick against Southampton which saw us scrape a 3-2 win, the late penalty against Liverpool in our (undeserved) 2-1 win, the injury time winning freekick against City away, as well as goals against Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool, have made a massive difference to our season. He’s a cut above and following worries that injuries may get the better of him, he’s more than justified every penny we paid for him, despite him being in the last year of his contract. But is he the only player we have in our squad who could have scored those goals?
We currently look like we’re going to win the league (last season’s disaster prevents me from claiming the title is ours) and it is widely accepted that we have Van Persie to thank for that. I would agree. His goals have been huge for us. But imagine we hadn’t signed him, or imagine he had spent a few spells out injured, would we be 13+ points worse off? If you take away the points his goals have won us, which is 23, more than any other player in the league, then certainly, but that shows nothing of value. If you were to take away his goals you would then be looking at where United would finish in the table if they played with ten men every game. You have to assume that if Van Persie wasn’t playing that someone else would be and whilst they almost certainly wouldn’t have scored all the goals the Dutchman has, it’s sensible to presume we would have had players who would have scored some of them. Javier Hernandez, for example, has the best goals to minutes on the pitch ratio of any striker in the league this season. If he had been playing instead of Robin, it’s a logical assumption he would have won us a few games too. Chicharito has only started 7 league games this season but he scored the winner at Chelsea away, twice in our 3-2 win against Villa, and the last minute winner in our 4-3 victory over Newcastle, amongst others.
Many people have written Wayne Rooney off as having a poor season and, by his standards, he has. But he’s still in the top 10 scorers this season, and only Walcott and Mata have more assists. If he had been played as our number 9, as he did in 2009-2010 when he scored 26 league goals in 32 games, instead of in a supporting role behind the striker and sometimes in midfield, you could assume that he would have a few more goals to his name too.
So, whilst not detracting from Van Persie’s contribution, I’d argue that we could still be top of the league if he hadn’t played as regularly. That’s largely thanks to Manchester City failing to maintain their form of last season and any other team mounting a title challenge, but that doesn’t change the fact we have been considerably better than everyone else this season, regardless of what Roberto Mancini would have you believe. Joe Hart contradicted his manager and pointed to the fact that they haven’t had enough players performing at a top level week in week out, whereas United have. “United have been a machine who have kept killing and we haven’t,” Joe Hart said a fortnight ago. “They were always going to come back strongly this season and we intended to do the same. It’s just how the season panned out. Every team will say you need at least eight performing and sometimes we haven’t had that. That’s not a criticism of anyone. It’s tough to be at your best all season. But it’s not like United have won a bonus game worth 15 points and gone above us. They have kept winning and we haven’t so it has to be a true reflection.”
I won’t be complaining if Van Persie wins the award but for me, Carrick is the one who deserves it. There are some seasons when a player really stands out, like Van Persie last season, Ronaldo in 2008, Henry in 2004 and so on, but this season, thanks to Robin’s two month period without a goal, there hasn’t been an attacking player who has shone throughout the course of the season. Hazard has had his moments of brilliance, Juan Mata has been much more consistent than Hazard but possibly thanks to those around him hasn’t been able to show just how good he is and has been rotated in and out of the team by Benitez, Suarez has now gone over a month without a goal, as he did just before Christmas etc. The last time we were without an attacking superstar was 2010-2011. So how do you decide on who has been the best? The journalists in this country deemed Scott Parker was the best player thanks to his “heroic” effort to save West Ham from relegation, which he didn’t quite manage. It would be unfair to say that to be the best player you have to play for the best team, but if you think there is one player who has done more to ensure that the best team is actually the best, surely they’re the most deserving? For me, that is why Carrick should be named PFA Player of the Year, because without him, United wouldn’t be in a position to win the league this season.
As someone said to me today, Van Persie is the reason why the gap at the top is so big, whereas Carrick is the reason why we’re top. He has played at a consistently high level throughout the course of the season and has made the biggest difference to our team. Is he a better player than Van Persie, Suarez, Mata etc.? As much as I like him, nobody would pay £30m+ for him. Technically, he’s not as gifted as the others in the list. But has he had a better season than the others? Certainly.
“I’m really happy how the season has gone,” he said this week. “I’ve played at a good level consistently which is probably the key I think. It’s tough when you’re younger. You have your good games and your bad games but the key to staying at the top is probably that high standard over a long period of time.”
‘But he only passes sideways or backwards’ is a repeated myth about Carrick, in response to fans defending him with his passing statistics. Whilst I don’t believe stats are the be all and end all, it’s foolish to think that they are irrelevant, and it’s useful to point to them when defending Carrick. Squawka confirmed this week that Carrick has passed the ball forward more than any player in the top European leagues this season. Mikel Arteta is the closest player to him, with 150+ fewer forward passes, next is Barcelona’s Xavi (200+ fewer), then Bayern Munich’s Dante (250+ fewer), and then Juve’s Andrea Pirlo (300 fewer). Other Premier League players to feature on the top 10 are Yaya Toure (350 fewer) and Santi Cazorla (400 fewer). This can partly be explained by Carrick’s position on the pitch, with him sitting deeper than the likes of Youre and Cazorla, but that doesn’t change the fact that he plays less safe (sideways/backwards) passes and more of the risky and important forward balls. The 53 forward passes he played in this week’s draw against West Ham was more than any player has in any Premier League game. He is always in the thick of it, seeing more of the ball than any of our players (and usually the opposition’s too) on a weekly basis, and allows our attacking players, who receive more of the plaudits, to win us games.
Still, whilst we would recognise his passing as his most valuable attribute, it would be foolish to ignore his defensive contribution.
“I think I’m just there to help the defence, to act as extra cover for them,” he said this week, when asked to describe himself as a player. “To stop the supply in to the opposition front players and at the same time service our attackers. It’s my job to keep the flow of service to them and let them create and score goals.”
As I did above, imagining United with Van Persie out of the team, I’d like you to think about Manchester United this season without Carrick. Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher have been out for almost its entirety. Tom Cleverley and Anderson’s fitness has been questionable too and their form, particularly the latter, has been very hit and miss. It’s likely that Anderson will be sold this season after failing to prove he’s got what it takes on a consistent level yet again. That leaves us with Ryan Giggs, who has been nothing short of woeful when played in the centre of midfield, with his good games pretty much all coming when he was played out wide. If any of those players had been playing week in week out in Carrick’s position we would more than likely see City winning the league back to back, despite them currently being 11 points short of where we were on 32 games last season. We could harp on about it being the worst season a title winning team had ever had but that wouldn’t change the fact they would have kept their name on the trophy.
Whilst we have good cover for Van Persie’s position, meaning we might have dragged ourselves over the finish line in first without him, we have next to no cover for Carrick’s, which for me means his consistently good performances have made the difference between us (probably) winning the league us not winning it. So if Carrick is the most valuable player for the best team in the league, does that not make him worthy of the PFA Player of the Year award by default? If he makes the difference between a team winning the title or not, does that not make him the best? That is the question up for debate but I don’t imagine the players voting will give it that much thought.
“Hard to believe it’s not Scholes, it’s Carrick, you know,” has been the most popular chant from the stands this season. At long last, the fans seem to fully support him, which Carrick gets to add to the praise he has continuously received from his manager and team mates over the years. He’s not as good as Scholes though, there aren’t many midfielders in the history of the game who we could claim are, but a further similarity will likely unfold on April 28th when he doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves and is overlooked for the award. I imagine though, just like Scholes, as long as he’s got another Premier League winners medal in his pocket, he won’t care less about the individual accolades. But for me, he has become our most important player, and at 31, we have a few more years of this to look forward to yet.