Manchester United won 3-2 against Stoke City last weekend.
In the game, Stephen Ireland was predominantly told to mark Michael Carrick. United's play flows through Carrick. With the Englishman out of the picture, United failed to build up attacks from the deep. The defenders looked confused and lacked ideas. Shinji Kagawa was often forced to drop deep to get on the ball but the Japanese is not a player who can build up plays.
The Over-Reliance on Carrick
Against Stoke, United's transition from the defending third into the attacking third was very slow, unless Carrick was able to unshackle the marking from Ireland to play a quick pass to one of the strikers.
In the 12th minute of the game (11 minutes, 30 seconds to be precise), Jonny Evans got possession of the ball. With Carrick marked, Evans loitered with the ball for a couple of seconds before passing it to Kagawa, who had fallen back. Kagawa struggled to find a way through Marke Hughes' troops and United's play became stagnant for a while before Phil Jones eventually shifted the ball out wide to the right wing.
At 12 minutes, two seconds, Carrick found some space, received the ball from Chris Smalling and released Nani within the next five seconds. United almost managed to enter the attacking third at 12 minutes, 11 seconds had Nani been accurate with his pass to Robin van Persie. It took Evans, Jones and Smalling almost half a minute to find a player who could take the team forward, while Carrick took just five seconds.
Carrick is the only player at United who can play the ball in between the lines to likes of Wayne Rooney and van Persie. And when the 32-year-old gets marked out of the game, it becomes the duty of the defenders to get the ball out of defense but they simply resort to playing the ball out wide to the full-backs and wingers- who are the safest passing outlets.
Against Stoke, Carrick could only enter the fray when United had entered the Potters' territory as then Ireland stopped marking Carrick to join the midfield bank of four.
So Carrick generally received the ball slightly ahead of the half-way line- his usual position when Untied are controlling play in the opposition's half. But this meant, Carrick wasn't involved in the build-up. And the latter is the crucial part and the transition period. It needs to be quick and pacey. In Carrick's "absence" that wasn't the case.
United's comeback against Stoke started as soon as Rooney dropped into the midfield. The 28-year-old is the second best passer of the ball (in terms of creativity) at Old Trafford. So, if Ireland marked Carrick, Rooney could spread the play.
He couldn't play vertical passes but his diagonal balls were more direct, better timed and more purposeful than that of Cleverley's. Eventually, Ireland got exhausted battling both Rooney and Carrick and gave up entirely on marking anyone.
Thus, Carrick was unshackled from the close monitoring and it wasn't long before he played the ball to Evra which led to Chicharito's goal.
Need For a Ball-Playing Centre Back
Rooney can't always be relied to play in midfield, so the Stoke match only enhanced United's need for a ball-playing centre-back.
Look at Borussia Dortmund for an instance. When Ilkay Gundogan is unable to exert his usual influence, Mats Hummels sprays wonderful passes to the likes of Marco Reus.
Rio Ferdinand's decline in form has only worsened the situation at United. No Red Devils player averages more than 0.3 key passes per-game, with Ferdinand yet to register a single key pass.
By comparison, Hummels stats stand at 0.9. At Bayern Munich, Jerome Boateng racks up 0.6 key passes per-game. Juventus have an amazing ball playing defender in the form of Angelo Obinze Ogbonna, playing 1.7 key passes every game. These players relieve the pressure on the likes of Gundogan, Toni Kross and Andrea Pirlo to supply ammunition the strikers.
It's also about taking the ball forward through the middle of the park- skipping challenges and tackles, where United's defenders are struggling.
While on one hand, Hummels completed 0.6 dribbles per game, the defender averaging the highest dribbles at United is Evans- with his stats at a dismal 0.3.
Simply put, United need a player who can play the ball from the back in case Carrick is unable to provide his services. Someone who can directly play the ball in between the zones.
The game against Norwich City and Stoke showed Tom Cleverley can't be that man, while passing has never been Marouane Fellaini's forte.
At the current rate, United are becoming way too reliant on Carrick to start attacks. Hummels is the ideal player to share some burden with the England international but buying him is a flight of fancy. Someone like Inigo Martinez perhaps?
(Statistics via WhoScored.com)