Manchester United endured a frustrating 1-1 draw against Arsenal this weekend, but there was one overwhelming positive to come out of the game: their midfield trio.
The result was incredibly underwhelming from a United point of view. They failed to hold onto a one-goal lead and conceded a headed goal because they couldn’t close down an opposing winger nor clear the cross he sent in.
The point leaves them as many points off top spot as it does a relegation place, which when you’re Manchester United with one of the most expensively assembled squads in the history of football, is a tough pill to swallow.
But the performance was actually not that bad. Alright, the finishing was absolutely terrible (more on that later) but Arsenal were cowed into incompetence. United bossed the first half and in the second period the Gunners’ first shot of any kind was Olivier Giroud’s 89th-minute equaliser.
United’s quality in the game was born out of a superb midfield performance from their trio of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick. Mourinho has chopped and changed the core of his side all season, but after realising the fundamental nature of Herrera two months ago, he now seems to have realised that Carrick is the perfect final piece to make his midfield fly.
And it may just be that the United boss has taken his cue from the Juventus midfield in which Pogba thrived under Antonio Conte.
Paul Pogba is 23, a world-class attacking midfielder moving into the beginnings of his peak period. Ander Herrera is 27, a quality central midfielder firmly at the peak of his powers. They have the ability to dominate, to control the tempo of a game, but can sometimes lack the savvy needed to know exactly what that tempo is.
Carrick is 35, a world-class defensive midfielder with his best days behind him. He’s not the dominant midfielder he was from 2006-2011 when he and Manchester United were among the world’s best sides. Nor is he the experienced general he was during United’s 2012-13 Premier League title win.
But he still has so much to offer to United precisely because of all that experience. All those victories and triumphs; Carrick knows how to win. He knows what it takes to dominate elite opponents, when to speed play up and when to bring it back down.
Whenever he has played this season, the Red Devils have had an assurance they have otherwise lacked. It’s the kind of confidence only a veteran player can bring to a midfield full of youth and talent.
POGBA’S NEW PIRLO
If a veteran defensive midfielder running the show at the heart of a three-man midfield featuring Paul Pogba sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Back at Juventus, Antonio Conte had a midfield three with Andrea Pirlo at the base and Paul Pogba on the left.
But their veteran status isn’t the core principle that Carrick and Pirlo have in common. Carrick’s ability to read opposing attacks and close them down before they escalate echoes what Pirlo used to do at Juve. It’s positional intelligence more than athleticism that allowed them both to be so effective as a screening presence ahead of the defence.
Both also possess a laser accurate long pass and were wonderful with the switch of play. Pirlo also had those glorious chipped through balls, while Carrick so often bisected teams’s with that wonderful slide rule square pass.
These passes help them rip opponents asunder because it allows them to find dynamic team-mates like Pogba, a midfielder who can start from a central position but is at his best romping forward, causing havoc between the lines of an opponent’s midfield and defence.
Even the third guy, the box-to-box central midfielder (Ander Herrera or Arturo Vidal at Juventus) who could easily play with Pogba in a midfield two, benefits greatly from having an added presence behind him.
Herrera (and Vidal before him) is an energetic midfielder, a box-to-box demon that offers cover in defence and presence in attack. They can score goals, set them up, and generally just bother opponents, especially with their tackling.
With a terrier-like attitude to tackling, however, Ander Herrera gives United’s midfield that bite they would otherwise lack. A steely edge. He won’t overpower everyone like, say, Marouane Fellaini – but that’s not really what United need. They have Pogba for power and precision in the final third, and with Herrera’s all-around coverage and tenacity tagged on to Michael Carrick’s calm controlling influence from deep, Manchester United have a near-perfect midfield unit.
Obviously there are flaws: Carrick’s age means asking him to play more than once a week is a risk. Mourinho has said he wants the Englishman to sign a one-year extension, but he needs to start looking for a replacement in the transfer market (or convert Daley Blind back to midfield).
And of course as the Arsenal game showed, United can dominate midfield all they want but that doesn’t guarantee victory. United really need to appoint a shooting coach because five times this season they have dominated opponents and still struggled to score.
The 1-0 wins over Zorya Luhansk and Hull City were games United should have won easily but laboured to, and then the draws against Stoke, Burnley and now Arsenal have knocked the Red Devils down the table and done serious damage to their aspirations of a return to the Champions League.
So yes, there’s more to do, but with a trio of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera and now Michael Carrick – midfield is one area Manchester United will not have to worry about for the foreseeable future.