Manchester United fans enjoyed a bittersweet summer's day on the 17 July earlier this year. New manager Louis van Gaal was publicly unveiled and gave his first press conference to mark a fresh new era for the club. However, the day also brought the news that Michael Carrick had undergone surgery on an injured ankle and would be out of action for 12 weeks.
At the time, van Gaal's arrival overshadowed anything else that was going on at the club and perhaps the full extent of what it meant for Carrick to be missing for three months didn't register with most people.
When Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra all left at the end of last season, some callous fans demanded that a 'past-it' Carrick be move on as well. However, now that he is back in the team after injury, it is clear that he is more important than people realised and was actually a huge miss while he was out.
Carrick is one of his generation's most decorated individuals. Since joining United from Tottenham in 2006, he has won five Premier League titles, two League Cups and has been a Champions League and Club World Cup winner, as well as playing in two further Champions League finals. He has the kind of top level experience that is matched by very few others and of the current United squad only Wayne Rooney and Darren Fletcher have been at the club longer.
Despite the excitement surrounding the dawning of the van Gaal era and the vast amount of money spent on the likes of Angel Di Maria, Ander Herrera, Daley Blind and Marcos Rojo, United started the season poorly and it is perhaps the absence of Carrick that was more telling than anything else - something that is more pronounced since his return with results drastically improving.
After seeing his team-mates struggle against the likes of Swansea, Burnley and West Brom, the 33-year-old made his comeback as a substitute in less than ideal circumstances in the Manchester derby following Chris Smalling's red card. However, Carrick was back in from the start the following week against Crystal Palace as United dominated the game before securing a confidence boosting 1-0 victory courtesy of a second half goal from Juan Mata.
The following game, United earned a hard fought win away at Arsenal and in the most recent outing Carrick controlled the game from start to finish as the team cruised to a 3-0 win over Hull. The Tigers didn't put up a great deal of fight, but nonetheless he was virtually untouchable and barely misplaced a pass for 90 minutes - though his more famous colleagues took a lot of the plaudits.
In the days leading up to the game, van Gaal had demanded that United be more ruthless and more clinical against 'smaller' sides, which was just what his most experienced midfielder delivered. Earlier in the season, the team's feathers had been well and truly ruffled by Leicester in a shock 5-3 defeat in September, despite having been 3-1 up. When victory was in sight there was suddenly no composure in possession and the Foxes were relentless in taking advantage, scoring four unanswered goals. Had Carrick been there as a calming influence, things might have been different.
Moving forward, the injury to Daley Blind and the as yet unconfirmed length of his absence means that Carrick's role will actually become even more crucial over the coming Christmas weeks and possibly few months after.
As well as Blind has done since he arrived from Ajax, he is still young and is still learning and adapting. What Carrick offers is an existing understanding with Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie and the eye for a killer pass - the likes of which almost saw the Dutch striker repeat his Ferenc Puskas Award nominated diving header against Hull.
A lot has been said about Cesc Fabregas at Chelsea this season, suggesting that by providing the platform for the likes of Eden Hazard and Diego Costa to perform the Spaniard is actually the most important player at the club at this moment in time. Since he's come back from injury, it is becoming clearer and clearer that Michael Carrick's importance to Manchester United is just as significant.
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