There are more theories about what's causing our problems this season than there are idiots to spout them, but there's one in particular that hasn't really sat right with me, or seemed to correspond with what was actually going on on the pitch. Manchester United's slump that saw the knives really out for David Moyes was partly blamed by the loss of Michael Carrick, and some of the upswing thereafter was put down to his return. The correlation was far from 100% on this, and I wasn't really sure that was the case.
I've been saying for a long time now that Carrick isn't good enough for Manchester United (along with several other players) and that he's been having a very poor season. We should at least compare United's season so far to how we've been doing without him. For the purposes of everything below, a player counts as 'playing' when he took part in at least 45 minutes of the game.
Total games played: 21
Total points: 37
Total points per game: 1.76
Games played with Michael Carrick: 13
Points with Michael Carrick: 23 (W7, D2, L4)
Points per game with Michael Carrick: 1.76
Games played without Michael Carrick: 8
Points without Michael Carrick: 14 (W4, D2, L2)
Points per game without Michael Carrick: 1.75
So, hang on: if Michael Carrick were fit for every game, or if Michael Carrick was absent for every game, there'd almost be no difference to how our season went. The difference is so minor that it wouldn't make a bit of impact on our points total, since it's only worth a hundredth of a point per game.
Now, I've said that Carrick can make the team perform worse, although it depends on who his partner is. I'm of the opinion that Carrick and Cleverley, one of our most common central midfield partnerships this year, is the absolute worst pairing we have. Marouane Fellaini has been inconsistent and mostly injured, so the sample size is pretty minute. But let's consider our other two midfielders, Phil Jones and Darren Fletcher. How have we gotten on with one of them in the side?
Games played with Phil Jones/Darren Fletcher: 15
Points with Phil Jones/Darren Fletcher: 33 (W10, D3, L2)
Points per game with Phil Jones/Darren Fletcher: 2.2
As we can see, that is an absolutely colossal difference. Phil Jones' injury has really not helped the team's form at all, but fortunately Darren Fletcher was able to come into his place when he suffered his latest malaise. During the four league games without Jones, Manchester United won three and lost one. Darren Fletcher started three and didn't play in one. No prizes for guessing which.
Now, let's have a look at our record without at least one of those two players.
Games played without Phil Jones/Darren Fletcher: 7
Total points without Phil Jones/Darren Fletcher: 7
Points per game without Phil Jones/Darren Fletcher: 1.00
That is nothing short of an absolute disgrace. On course for 38 points - not even the mythical 40 points needed to survive the drop. In other words, it's literally relegation form. Teams have gone down with that number of points. Can there be a worse indictment of the Tom Cleverley-Michael Carrick axis?
So, how would this theoretically look if we were to extend it to league places? Well, without Michael Carrick, or with Michael Carrick fit in every game, we'd be in exactly the same position we are now.
Without Darren Fletcher or Phil Jones? We'd be on 21 points, level with Swansea and West Brom in 13th and 14th, a whopping twenty-one points off the top four, and twenty-seven points from top spot.
With Darren Fletcher or Phil Jones? That would put us on just over 46 points - in other words, exactly where Chelsea are now, in the top four, and just two points from first place.
What can we learn from this? In short, I think there's only one conclusion to be made here, and it's something I've been saying for a while: Manchester United have two competent midfielders at the club, and their names are Phil Jones and Darren Fletcher. If one of them isn't playing, we might as well pack up and go home.
Whenever Carrick is criticised, people usually decide to defend him by instead putting the blame on his partner, Tom Cleverley. I also looked at United with and without Cleverley - amusingly, in all of his games, they have 30 points from 15 games. Two per game, significantly better than normal, significantly better than the games Michael Carrick played. Without him, they have seven points from six games - just 1.16 points per game. I've not included these stats along with the others as the sample size without him is much smaller, and he's also had a lot of games where he's played just over or just under forty-five minutes, which is not the case with Jones, Fletcher or Carrick. But it's still an interesting thought.
I've criticised statistics on here before, but those have usually been in-game ones, where the models for what we measure are pretty awful and tell us very little. This is far from perfect, but it still looks pretty enlightening. Let's just hope at least one of them is getting the nod against Chelsea at the weekend.
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