Asa midfielder Michael Carrick was so subtly intelligent that spectators in the stands sometimes barely noticed his consistent success in shaping and controlling games. Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira may have possessed greater physical presence and Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were definitely more dynamic, but Carrick’s technically assured vision prompted valid comparisons to Spain’s Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso.
Three months into his first managerial posting at Middlesbrough, the former West Ham, Manchester United and England anchor is already exerting a similarly understated yet potentially revolutionary effect on this season’s Championship. Carrick appears so quietly unshowy, so modestly down to earth that it is easy to overlook the root-and-branch reform he has undertaken since succeeding Chris Wilder in late October.
“We’ve tweaked a few things and it’s snowballed,” says the 41-year-old in his soft Tyneside accent as he sits in Wilder’s old seat at Middlesbrough’s outwardly tranquil Rockliffe Park training ground in the village of Hurworth-on-Tees. a few miles south of Darlington. “We’re flying at the moment.”
Until now, his feat in choreographing six wins in Boro’s past seven league games as they have risen from relegation waters to fifth place has gone largely under the radar, but Premier League Brighton are unlikely to underestimate Carrick’s side when they visit the Riverside for Saturday’s third round FA Cup those.
Roberto De Zerbi, the Brighton manager, will appreciate that the former Manchester United coach’s inspired conversion of the previously sidelined former Arsenal striker Chuba Akpom into a goal machine who has scored nine times in his past 10 games is no accident.
It seems the tactical acumen of a manager whose replacement of Wilder’s 3-5-2 with a more possession-oriented 4-2-3-1 is just as sharp as the passing range that helped Carrick collect 34 England caps in addition to one Champions League and five Premier League winners’ medals. He also won the FA Cup with United in 2016 but, much as Carrick emphasizes his love for the competition, he knows Steve Gibson, Boro’s owner, hired him to return the team to the Premier League – and ideally this season.
“I’m a massive fan of the FA Cup; as a kid, watching the final in May was a huge day in the calendar for me and the excitement doesn’t change,” he says. Yet when Carrick is asked whether he is tempted to field a weaker team against Brighton he does not contradict that notion, instead merely body-swerving it. “I don’t think we’ve got a weak team here,” he smiles. “I’m delighted with everybody.
“Brighton are a really terrific team, especially in possession, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we do against them when we have the ball. I want to beat Brighton; seeing if you’re good enough to pull it off on big occasions is what you’re in football for. But the measurement for us now is the league and where we end up. It’s all about where we finish the season.”
Given that Boro were 22nd at the time of Wilder’s departure the 12-point gap separating them from the second automatic promotion place occupied by Sheffield United is regarded as distinctly surmountable on Teesside. If Boro do go up, Carrick’s decision to appoint Jonathan Woodgate as his first-team coach will have been fully vindicated. Considering Woodgate was sacked as Boro’s manager and replaced by Neil Warnock two-and-a-half years ago it initially looked a slightly left-field recruitment but he and Carrick are tactical soulmates.
The former international teammates share a longstanding friendship and Woodgate’s inside knowledge of the squad has proven invaluable. Significantly, the former center back, who won eight England caps, is credited with helping Dael Fry and Darragh Lenihan forge a formidable defensive partnership. Both players, Fry especially, had fallen out of favor under Wilder, but where Boro’s former manager could be abrasively critical of individuals, Carrick and Woodgate preferred a more emollient, arm-around-the-shoulder approach. Long-serving club staff have been greatly impressed by the manager’s “calmness” and distinctly non-starry “humility”.
High standards are demanded but individuals are spoken to with the sort of sensitivity perhaps informed by Carrick’s experience of a two-year period with depression during his playing days.
“I don’t know what went on before but the boys have been great since we started,” says Carrick, who signed striker Cameron Archer on loan from Aston Villa on Friday. “They are prepared to listen and apply themselves. When we’ve tweaked things they’ve responded. Everybody understands that successful teams are not about individuals. The attitude and application have been absolutely spot on.”
Boro’s new passing game has brought out the best in the 20-year-old academy graduate Hayden Hackney and the ability of Zack Steffen, the United States goalkeeper on loan from Manchester City, to serve as a “sweeper-keeper” is integral to the hallmark build-from-the-back philosophy.
Carrick has retained the slender, straight-backed elegance which characterized his playing days, but he appreciates that he cannot be too rigid, let alone evangelistic, about the team’s modus operandi. “I want to see free-flowing attacking football and we’ve played some really good, easy-on-the-eye stuff, but what pleases me is that it hasn’t all been like that,” he says. “In sticky situations we’ve done all sorts; it’s particularly pleasing that we can find a way to win when we have to.”