Written for It’s Round and its White football blog,
Jose Mourinho has the option to herald a new dawn of control and tempo in the Premier League; he can disrupt the perpetuated norm that a central-defensive-midfielder should be imposing and combative. Mourinho should look to Daley Blind to ease Manchester United’s worries surrounding the replacement of the ageing Michael Carrick – in doing so, Mourinho would rebel against the physically imposing nature of central midfield play.
The Premier League has been, and still is, a centre of technical excellence. Yet, the emerging elite in England’s top tier has gravitated towards a new trend of employing a physical ‘CDM’. Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino elects for Victor Wanyama, Antonio Conte deploys the boisterous Nemanja Matic as a screener, Jurgen Klopp uses the strength of Jordan Henderson and even Arsene Wenger is not immune to such change, choosing Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny in this role.
It’s a trend that has seen the top clubs choose presence over intricacy. This is not to say that there is no technical ability in their midfield, as there undoubtedly is. But, instead of opting for a deft protector of the back four, or three in Conte’s case, a player with greater stature is chosen. Clearly, this decision has its up-sides – these physical CDMs have a combative approach, allowing for turnovers of possession. Yet, it is limiting in the respect that these teams sacrifice players who can use the ball to initiate quick, effective attacks.
The technical brilliance of Aaron Ramsey is sacrificed at Arsenal as he is pushed out wide; the swift details of Eric Dier’s game is lost at Tottenham; the composed and soft touches of Cesc Fabregas is absent from Stamford Bridge.
The top teams, generally, don’t do a lot of defending – hence Pep Guardiola’s recent outburst about the lack of importance on tackling. A team who will invariably dominate possession does not need a ball winner floating in front of their back four.
To his credit, Mourinho has spotted this, or has rather had his thrust in his face. Opt for Michael Carrick and United win, or at the least draw. Opt, as the Reds’ boss was doing earlier in the season, for the more intimidating figure of Marouane Fellaini, and you lose an element of control.
It’s been said before so there is no need to bore you with the same old record, but Carrick makes United tick, allowing the flair of Paul Pogba and the tenacity and energy of Ander Herrera to flourish. His importance to the team is unquestionable; they’re unbeaten in the 15 matches he’s played, winning 13.
If we were talking about a player ten years younger, his market value wouldn’t be far off what Jose Mourinho paid for Pogba – and that isn’t a grand overstatement. Unfortunately, he’s not ten years younger and does not have the capacity to run United’s midfield for the next five years.
He’s 34 years-old and needs replacing in the next couple of years if United are to be successful.
Daley Blind possess the necessary skills and attributes to maintain the balance in Manchester United’s midfield and can be Mourinho’s rejection of the Premier League’s emphasis on strength.
Blind and Carrick are similar players. Both employ a wonderfully effective philosophy in their play that so many players lamentably ignore in the modern game – namely, simplicity. Carrick is employed in-front of the back four and charged with bringing the ball out from the back and stringing together attacks from fairly straight-forward passes; indeed, most of Carrick’s play revolves around connecting the dots.
Carrick has a pass completion rate of 89% in the Premier League, whilst Blind has one of 87%; there is little difference in the quality and accuracy of their passing. Given Carrick’s superior experience and familiarity with a role he has occupied his whole career, the gap presents itself as inconsequential: Blind would match, if not surpass, such statistics given the chance to assume this role on a permanent basis.
The Dutchman has showcased his propensity for quick, simple and accurate passing under Louis van Gaal when operating at centre-back and left-back. He is calm in possession, unaffected by the intense fever of match-play. His exploits in defence have aided his awareness of positioning, allowing him to distance himself from congestion and create a vital yard of space. The 26-year-old has a brilliantly intelligent footballing brain: he can identify gaps and thread a ball through the most claustrophobic of midfield, and defences.
Both players pertain to the notion that one does not need to be a daunting presence on the pitch to adopt this role.
Carrick’s time at the top as has an expiry date, and he is beginning to reach it. Mourinho has to begin to integrate Blind into Carrick’s role and must not be tempted by the mainstream selection for physicality in the CDM position.