Manchester United must drop Michael Carrick for Arsenal

Paul Thomas

Michael Carrick was a hugely important player for Manchester United last season, but the time has come for David Moyes to drop him against Arsenal.

Everybody knows on Twitter, from the tactics experts, the betting blogs, the #mufcfamily right down to those accounts that have the first reply below Cristiano Ronaldo and Rio Ferdinand's tweets sexually propositioning them. Michael Carrick is the most important player for Manchester United. Because he's very, very good at interceptions.

There's the obvious argument that looking at football in such a way is joyless and misses out everything that draws people to the game in the first place, and that such views led people to characterise Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the greatest who ever lived, a player who can win you any game, as tactically toxic. But there's real flaws at the heart of this way of thinking.

Firstly, 'interceptions' is a very loose term. Yes, some ingenious positioning to thwart an opposition attack and launch a deadly counter-attack goes down as an interception. So does a clearance under pressure aimlessly hoofed into the opponents half that is picked up with no difficulty. So does the same even when it's aimlessly headed to an opposition player. So does the same when an easy, wayward pass is miscontrolled and costs the team a goal. Whatever it measures, there is no way of telling which required any ability and which were just a result of being the deepest midfielder, that a concrete bollard could have achieved.

And even if we could measure such things accurately - and we can't - then there remains the question: how useful are interceptions at winning games? Sites like Squawka have ratings that judge players on all aspects of the game, but how do we know how much value to place on interceptions versus, for instance, goals and assists? Who decides how important interceptions are at winning a game? How do we know they have any value towards doing so at all?

The simple reason is that we don't. And while Twitter might repeat the same arguments ad nauseum, common sense dictates that Michael Carrick is, in fact, very unlikely to be the best at winning back possession. The best player in the league at getting the ball from the opposition is a slow, immobile player who is weak in the tackle? The slightest bit of thought leads to the conclusion that it can't possibly be true. And there it is, in statistics that are no better than a random number generator.

That alone puts Michael Carrick's position in the team under question, but the main reason is very simple: Manchester United have played very badly this season when he has been in the team, and very well when he hasn't. Undergoing a long run of not scoring any goals from open play, United then scored seven in their next two games after he was left out of the side.

In the three games without Carrick, against Norwich City, Fulham, and Real Sociedad, United have done something they've previously been able to do - control the game. All three sides were unable to get out of their half for most of it, with the first two being resounding victories and the latter a dull 0-0 hampered by United not having Rafael, Adnan Januzaj or Robin van Persie available to create or score the goals.

Of course, Norwich City, Fulham and Real Sociedad are not the hardest trio of opponents United will ever face, but then neither were the teams they struggled against before. They were beaten at home by an out-of-form West Bromwich Albion. They required a miracle to come back against Stoke City, who created five clear chances in the first half alone and dominated at Old Trafford. They were completely outplayed by Southampton. The quality of opposition is more or less equivalent.

In the first of those two games, United lined up with a midfield of Phil Jones and Tom Cleverley, and that's the midfield that should start against Arsenal. Both are very flawed players, but crucially, both have pace - when the ball is lost, it ends up being won much higher up the pitch than Carrick, with his mythical interceptions, can achieve. The result is that United can exert a far greater degree of control over the game, and thus have a better chance of winning it.

Other players benefit from this. Most of the action takes place higher up the pitch, meaning that the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj can prosper from not having to toil around in the fullback position trying to win possession. It simply makes United a better team in every respect. Carrick had been worthwhile last season, when his robustness allowed an out-of-sorts side to edge their way to a title, but since then players like Wayne Rooney have recaptured their form and Adnan Januzaj has been added to the side.

For all the statistics and weight of repeated statements that Carrick is a god, the hard evidence this season only points to one thing: Manchester United are a better side without him in the team. They cannot afford to risk defeat against Arsenal by ignoring the opportunity to learn a valuable lesson.

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