Michael Carrick smiled yesterday when he was reminded of Gary Neville’s description of him as the footballing equivalent of “a piano”.
What Neville, his former Manchester United team-mate and current England coach, meant was that Carrick is a man who sets the mood with his composed passing – and the player himself takes it as a compliment.
“I think what he meant was playing alongside Scholesy [Paul Scholes] I learnt so much,” said Carrick, speaking at St George’s Park. “Scholesy was like that, he’d take the ball anywhere, he’d put his foot on the ball and try to influence the game. It is a lot on your personality, how you are as a person, as a player. That is how I am really – quite quiet and understated. It suits me.”
It is an understated tune Carrick plays – more Richard Clayderman than Little Richard – but, happily for the 33-year-old, it is back in vogue. Carrick’s excellence this season for United, who have lost just one of the 15 games he has started, has earned him a one-year contract extension, confirmed last Friday, and he is now expected to make his first competitive appearance for his country in 17 months in Friday’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Lithuania.
Given Jack Wilshere’s absence, Carrick appears the obvious choice to fill the berth at the base of manager Roy Hodgson’s midfield diamond – “a formation that would probably suit me,” he noted – but then his England career has been anything but straightforward.
One striking fact about Carrick’s international fortunes is that he has played only one match in a major tournament, against Ecuador at the 2006 World Cup. He was an unused squad member at South Africa 2010, while he asked not to be considered for Euro 2012. Despite making his debut back in May 2001 against Mexico, 14 years on he has only 31 caps – one fewer than Danny Welbeck.
Louis van Gaal, Carrick’s United manager, praised his reading of the game recently, but his England record suggests he has been undervalued in this country. “I just do what comes naturally,” said Carrick of his approach. “I suppose everyone brings something different – some people think about the game more, some are a bit more instinctive.”
Carrick cites players like “[Andrea] Pirlo, [Xabi] Alonso, [Sergio] Busquets” as ones he admires and he is cut from the same cloth. “It’s certainly talked about a lot more,” he replied, when asked if this more cerebral role is better appreciated today. “A lot more in-depth stats come into it.
“When I first came into football, midfield was more of a general position, the box-to-box midfielder who did a bit of everything. Now it’s been separated. You have your No 10s, your tacklers, your more defensive players.”
A quiet man who likes “getting away from the game sometimes”, he is not the type to blow his own trumpet but has he deserved better with England? “When you compare it with others and ask, ‘Is it enough?’ I obviously feel I should have had more [caps]. That’s not blaming any managers – that’s down to me as well, because at certain times I could have done better.”
He turns 34 in July but after an injury-interrupted start to the season, is enjoying life under Van Gaal – “I couldn’t ask for any more from him in terms of what he’s given me, and the support and confidence to be a big part of the team... I’ve definitely learnt from him” – and it is not unreasonable to expect he can play on, given how he approaches the game. “Maybe, it is not exactly based on speed!”
What he would really like now is one last hurrah with England. “I’d love to have another real crack at it,” he said of the prospect of a final tournament appearance in France next year. “It’s important not to get carried away [but] for me to have another crack and try to have a bigger influence is the target.”