jol speaks : "i have seen the future of tottenham hotspur and it is michael carrick."

This article first appeared in MEHSTG Volume 2  Issue 48  -  December 2005

Alan Hansen is not a man who is easily impressed. Frugal with his praise, the performances of one player on England’s summer American tour left him shaking his head in speechless admiration. Eventually he spluttered a few words: “Outstanding. Imperious. His passing. World class. Imperious.”

That player was Michael Carrick. Whilst he had had a decent season, few of us would have recognised him from that description, a midfielder of undoubted talent but hardly world class. Yet with every game his quality becomes increasingly evident, and maybe Carrick is on the threshold of greatness, another in the classic Tottenham mould.

Like all great players, Carrick has a distinctive style and demeanour. He stands tall and upright, enabling the vision to see what is happening around him and the balance to aid ball control. He’s essentially two footed, favouring the right. His trademark pirouette on the ball simultaneously shields it from impertinent tacklers, making him extremely difficult to dispossess, and creates space to consider more constructive options. In a sublime moment in the second half against Arsenal, two Gunners quickly closed in as the ball was played to him. A delicate drop of the shoulders, suddenly they were five yards away going in the wrong direction and one touch later the ball was thirty yards away at Defoe’s feet.

Without question Glenn Hoddle is the best passer of a ball I have ever seen in the best part of forty years of watching Spurs. Like Hod, Carrick has the precious ability to see opportunities early, even if he is yet to develop that control of pace and weight of pass that marked his predecessor as truly gifted. Currently Carrick’s only premiership rival in this department is Steven Gerrard. As with all top class midfielders, he seems to have time on the ball, seldom rushed or breaking sweat, rising above those with inferior ability as they pant and strain around him. He tends not to dwell on the ball, seeking to move it on swiftly, whether to colleagues out wide to change the point of attack or a more direct thrust through the channels. It’s a shame that Defoe for all his talent does not yet have the complementary ability to see those openings early and produce more effective runs for his team-mate.

Football has its fashions and the current vogue is for a defensive midfielder. Those of us who have been around for a long time have seen it all before, of course. We can lean back, suck a thoughtful tooth and tell those fireside stories about defensive midfielders of old - Pratt, Yorath, Roberts (who started in midfield, remember, as did Jol in his homeland). The attributes of these players are totally different from those that Carrick possesses; chosen for their stamina, work-rate and tackling, they were hard men one and all.  

Jol’s distinctive tactical contribution, however, is to demand that the player in front of the back four not only contributes defensively but also has the skill to turn defence into attack. Carrick’s style generates a variety of possibilities. He can hold it up to provide a few precious moments of respite and enable colleagues to get into more attacking positions, initiate a few short ‘push and run’ movements or spread the play to a wide man, another of Jol’s preferences. Alternatively, at his feet the long ball becomes an accurate pass to feet or chest, or into space, rather than a mindless hoof up the pitch. Work-rate is not his speciality, but he is always looking for the ball, available to colleagues, usually gesturing double handed that he wants the ball to feet. His team-mates know that if they give him the ball even in tight situations he will control and protect it. Thus there is always an option to relieve pressure and retain possession.

Defensively he does a reasonably effective job, learning to make the most of his attributes. Hardly a tough tackler, he prefers timing to get a toe in, although we already have evidence of the odd penalty that will no doubt be the price to pay. At set pieces he could be easily knocked off the ball in the air, so he is stationed at the near post to dispose of anything low or short. 

The rise of a quality midfielder from good to great can often be measured in the way they can control a game and run it from midfield but I cannot see this quality ever emerging in Carrick, however well he progresses. It’s just not in his character. He must therefore rely on others for this quality, someone like, shall we say, an Edgar Davids, just to pluck a name out of the air. Neither is he a box to box player, so again he needs the right people around him, oh, I don’t know, maybe a Jenas, Tainio, Mendes, even a Davis or Brown. That Martin Jol, thinks of everything, doesn’t he, and I trust that young Michael gives thanks every night that his manager is such a benevolent, perceptive soul. You sense that Carrick is not the most naturally confident or outgoing individual, so by surrounding him with players that complement his style he is both protected and his strengths can blossom for the good of the team.

However, herein lies a problem. Carrick’s defensive duties in a flat midfield four or at the base of a diamond diminish his attacking abilities. He doesn’t get forward enough to use his passing to dissect the opposition defence and deliver the killer blow. Strikers like Keane and Defoe relish the precise through ball to feet or slid into space, and one reason that we are not scoring enough is that Carrick is not doing more from 25 – 30 yards out, never mind that his shooting makes him the new Steffen Freund. Also, long, looping passes, whether cross-field or through the middle, may be aesthetically pleasing but as they hang in the air defenders have time to regroup.

Michael Carrick’s talent has always been obvious, and this season he has stepped up a notch or three, consistently performing to a high standard as he plays regularly, his instructions clear within a set tactical formation. Jol knows what he wants and conveys that to the team, and no one has benefited more than Carrick. His displays create waves of appreciative applause from the stands rather than roars of adulation; he’s still to convince more than a few sceptics. His winner against Sunderland occasioned the first Carrick chant to echo round the Lane, and a more ruthless attitude in the final third would certainly help. I believe there is a lot more to come and it’s only a matter of time before he fully wins the crowd over. The sight of him running with the ball against West Ham, gliding at speed with the ball at his feet, hinted at hitherto unseen dimensions to his play. Ahead lies a distinguished future, but more significantly Spurs have genuinely exciting prospects and at the heart of the team will be Michael Carrick.

ALAN FISHER

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