Just when their season seemed to have picked up some momentum, Manchester United have been dealt a huge blow as Michael Carrick is set to miss up to six weeks with an achilles injury that forced him to withdraw from the England squad.
Often described as a mono-dimensional player, over the last couple of seasons the 32-year-old has developed into a crucial figure for the Premier League champions and his absence is likely to be sorely felt by David Moyes’ men.
Carrick’s importance to United’s approach can’t be overstated, as the midfielder on average completes 86.8% of the 77 passes he attempts every 90 minutes – 20 more than any other United player – while also bringing to the table the calm and composure that typify his game.
If the Geordie’s passing statistics have been well documented, his defensive work rate still fails to get the appreciation it deserves. Carrick might not be the tough tackling midfielder United fans have been craved since Roy Keane’s departure, but the England international produces 2.4 clearances and 1.9 tackles per game, while his four interceptions per 90 minutes are just as crucial.
Carrick’s absence leaves a massive gap in United’s midfield, a hole made to look even bigger by the club’s failure to strengthen the squad adequately during the summer, when Marouane Fellaini was David Moyes’ only significant signing.
The Belgian, however, has failed to justify the £27m price-tag that accompanied him from Goodison Park to Old Trafford on deadline day and has, in fact, looked a pale imitation of the player he was at Everton.
Since his arrival at United, Fellaini has been deployed much deeper than at Everton, partnering Carrick in the middle of the park rather than playing off the main striker, a position he’s often insisted to be his favourite and one he occupies for Belgium.
The results, however, have been unimpressive. Fellaini is even less dynamic than Carrick and struggles to keep up with the pace of the game when utilised as second central option in a flat, four-man midfield.
The Beglian’s pass completion rate stands at an impressive 88.9% but the former Everton player has attempted a mere 39 passes every 90 minutes, an alarming low figure for a player who’s asked to sit in front of the back four.
Phil Jones’ numbers are inferior to Fellaini’s – the former Blackburn has produced 37.1 passes per game – but the 21-year-old offers the dynamism that is sorely lacked by the former Everton man which, theoretically at least, could see them paired together in Carrick’s absence.
It is, however, unlikely to see Fellaini and Jones to be deployed together in a 4-4-2 formation, for neither has the passing range required to split defences open and to keep the team ticking, which is why Carrick’s injury could represent a huge chance for Tom Cleverley.
Statistically, the England international is United’s second-best option in the middle of the park after Carrick, attempting 56 passes and 4.3 long balls per game and completing the 89.7% of them – in fact a higher percentage than Carrick’s.
However impressive Cleverley’s numbers are, the 24-year-old is yet to demonstrate he can grab a game by the scruff of its neck and while he’s likely to step into the starting line-up for the next six weeks, it would be fascinating to see him deployed alongside Fellaini and Jones as he would be able to focus purely on the offensive part of his game.
Moyes, however, is unlikely to disrupt the 4-2-3-1 formation that has worked so well in recent weeks, particularly as it would force him to drop Wayne Rooney deeper, given that Ryan Giggs and Anderson are the only two other options at the United manager’s disposal.
While Giggs has produced a couple of accomplished performances this season, United simply can’t afford to rely on a man two-weeks short of his 40th birthday, at least not on a weekly basis.
Anderson, on the other hand, looks to have finally run out of chances at the club and could soon be shipped out, provided that Moyes finds a club gullible enough to take the Brazilian on their books.
On Sunday, United were comprehensively outpassed by Arsenal but managed to grind out a crucial result. More of that attitude might be needed over the next six weeks.