Last Sunday, Michael Carrick returned to the starting line-up with what amounted to a barnstorming performance, in his own sort of a way. Manchester United decided that passing forward, quickly, was fun again, and Carrick joined in with a cute through ball for the first goal, an unlikely header for the second, and much tidiness for the rest of the game. This was good. This was, also, slightly sad.
Not in itself something to be miserable about, no, but we'll get to that. First, let's get general. There is Manchester United the football team: a collection of very well-paid professional athletes, managed and supported and overseen and bought and sold by other very well-paid professionals, who train most of the time, play games once or twice a week, and at the end of the season judge their achievements by the presence, or otherwise, of something large and shiny.
Then there is Manchester United the Football Club, which is a vast, sprawling thing — or multiplicity of things — that surrounds the team but isn't part of it: this includes a rampant commercial division, brand ambassadors, noodle partners, a social media presence of profound malignity, Fred the Red, a rumour mill that looks like a Catherine wheel, a tangled proliferation of blogs, vlogs, forums, fanzines, columns, thoughts, musings and, last but most, and sort of responsible for much of the foregoing either as source or target, fans in uncountable millions, from the 65-year-old Stretford End lifer to the eight-year-old on the other side of the world.
Basically, there's United the team, which is all the stuff that happens, and then there's United the permanent, seething argument, which sits above and around the stuff that happens like weather. Sometimes pleasant, most of the time a persistent grey drizzle that does nobody's mood any good, occasionally hilariously stormy.
United's fans agree on some things. They agree that George Best was very, very good, and Gabriel Obertan wasn't. They agree that Peter Schmeichel was excellent and Mark Bosnich less so. Most of the points between those extremes, though, are up for debate. Look hard enough and you'll find a United fan that thinks Paul Scholes was overrated, that doesn't think Ruud van Nistelrooy was all that, that reckons Tom Cleverley deserved another chance.
And that's fine. People will be people. The great thing about Michael Carrick, though, is that he exists at both of those extremities at the same time; simultaneously the Geordie Xavi and a fraudulent waster. Some players are divisive. Berbatov was divisive. Berbatov was Marmite. Carrick, at times, makes Marmite look like strawberry jam. Clever people who love their football believe him to be exceptional. Other clever people who love their football think he's a sizzling embarrassment to the club who should be dispatched to the wilderness (well, Everton) forthwith.
For what it's worth, this aspect of tBB thinks he's pretty decent, generally useful, and occasionally overmatched against the best. And yes, this aspect of tBB was nailed to the fence at birth. But we've reached a point where the sides are so entrenched and the arguments so familiar that having the argument itself is a waste of everybody's time. Instead, let's talk about why he's so divisive. Yes, it's "because he's bobbins" and/or "because he's great". But it's also because he's at the heart of a perfect storm of character, context and culture.
His position, for starters. Carrick is a defensive midfielder, nominally, but he's not a bastard or an enforcer. Nor does he float around like one of those fancy Andrea Pirlo types, delivering through balls on velvet cushions and pinging gold leaf freekicks into the corner of the goal. In theory, he's a good, tempo-setting passer from deep with the ball — which is how Manchester United prefer to play — and an adequate intercepting presence without it. Which is perfect for a player seeking to divide opinion: strikers score or don't score, keepers throw the ball in or not, but midfield lubricators? They have good games and bad games, sure, but with nearly everything they do being contingent on everybody else, it can be quite hard to tell them apart.
You could always look at the stats, of course, and it's here that we run into the second problem: Carrick is something of a poster child for the high priests of the pass completion percentage. Which is to say, he's found himself a symbol of the vexed pro-stats vs. anti-stats culture war that is
threatening to tear football apart keeping people busy on the internet. Are heatmaps for the reading or burning? Is ExpG an advanced metric or an industrial solvent? What would you do with a half-space, park somewhere else?
There are reasonable arguments to be had about the utility of individual pass completion percentages, most pressingly the question of whether they were good passes that got completed. But one thing is certain. Simply saying "oh, he completed 94% of his passes" does not, in the mind of a Carrick-sceptic, mean the same thing as "he had a good game". And likewise, simply asking "right, but can you remember a single pass that led to anything useful?" does not translate to a Carrick-friendly brain as "he's absolute toss".
He fills much the same role when it comes to the ongoing arguments over the primacy of tactics. Those on one side of the argument see Carrick as a victim of a world dominated by first impressions and obvious impacts. Occasionally, these people tend to get a little overheated and start saying things like "one of the most underrated players around" and "if only England had trusted him more" and "I hear the only reason Barcelona didn't buy him was that he's allergic to the sight of blue and red together". (That last would certainly explain the 2011 Champions League final.) And equally, those on the other side can, at times, be a little guilty of over-Mike Bassett-ing themselves.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all of this is that while the arguments have raged around Carrick — while it's rained and thundered and, er, lightninged — his place in the squad has been more-or-less secure ever since his arrival. If you search for "carrick for sale" you get beds, shoes and Scottish property, so don't do that. If you Google "carrick transfer", the first two news stories that come up are reports of his purchase, all the way back in 2006.
Alex Ferguson adores him; just last year, he described him as the best midfielder in the English game. Louis van Gaal does too, which is why he's likely going to get that new deal. He seems to be held in decent regard by his teammates, in the eight seasons prior to this he's never made less than 40 appearances, and if he gets his new deal he'll have gone ten years at the club. Which, at Manchester United, isn't bad going. (Or it's a sign of a decline in standards, etc., etc.)
To return to Berbatov for a moment, even the Bulgarian's doubters all admitted that he was a footballer of rare and profound skill. They just wished he'd run more, and eventually Ferguson agreed with them and moved him on. But the Carrick argument is almost a thing to itself, one that exists thanks to its own momentum. An ideological war, a pitched and rolling brawl where the enemy is the enemy because they're the enemy and that's all there is to it, really. There is no possible reconciliation; that would take the denial of the quite obvious fact that Carrick is brilliant/rubbish, and nobody's going to be denying any facts here, thank you very much.
And soon, he will be gone, and all this wonderful antagonism will blow itself out. Perhaps, in the fullness of time, another candidate will step up, and we can all enjoy a good row over whether Daley Blind is the best/worst thing since sliced Carrick. Until then, any of us lucky enough to be in the middle must make the most of the arguments while we can. Clear skies might mean drier shoes, but they're a whole lot more boring.