Will Carrick prove the real deal for Ferguson or an £18.6m lightweight?

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The Independent Football

Manchester United took delivery of potentially the fifth most expensive player in their illustrious history yesterday and yet while Michael Carrick finalised the details of an £18.6m transfer from Tottenham Hotspur the club's support were more enthralled by minimal details of the first post-Gelsenkirchen encounter between Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney. United's first acquisition of the summer may represent the latest solution to Sir Alex Ferguson's exhaustive search for a 21st-century midfield, but it will require an immediate and emphatic return on an exuberant transfer fee before Carrick fires their imagination and alters the perception that he is an expression of frustration rather than a statement of intent.

Taken in isolation the purchase of a 25-year-old, established Premiership playmaker, one who was instrumental in Tottenham's renaissance last season and who also has the temperament and maturity to handle the unique spotlight of Old Trafford, is a progressive move by a manager whose attempts to replace Roy Keane have floundered so spectacularly for several years. After the failures of Juan Sebastian Veron, Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba, all of whom proved more evocative in name rather than deed, and the swiftly departed Liam Miller, Carrick represents the reliable, trusted alternative.

Whether he alone represents the great leap forward that United require to close the chasm on Chelsea next season, however, is open to conjecture. An inflated price-tag, admittedly one that is structured around various incentive-based payments and is, therefore, not the vast profit that Tottenham have proclaimed, has emphasised the dire predicament that United find themselves in as they struggle to compete with the reigning Premiership champions both on the field of play and in the transfer market. Once their interest in Carrick was revealed by The Independent on the eve of the World Cup last season's runners-up could not afford to miss out on their primary target, whatever the cost.

Meanwhile, Chelsea, who showed little interest in Carrick, welcomed to Stamford Bridge the man whom Ferguson had previously envisaged leading his new-look midfield next season, the free agent and Champions' League regular Michael Ballack.

Most of the questions raised by this deal, however, concern Carrick himself, who is yet to perform in Europe never mind prove that he can dominate midfield in the manner Ferguson craves and envies when he watches Steven Gerrard at Liverpool or Claude Makelele at Chelsea. Alongside a second, more tenacious midfield signing or a rejuvenated Paul Scholes Carrick can prosper, as he showed when supported by the experienced Edgar Davids at White Hart Lane last season and in winning over the critics at West Ham United towards the end of his Upton Park career, but while elegance and invention in possession will be welcomed at Old Trafford, United's midfield is also in desperate need of dynamism. Perhaps that will be addressed before the close of the window, with Villarreal's Marcos Senna tipped to fill that void.

Chief among those who doubt if Carrick can assert himself on the most combative of stages is Sven Goran Eriksson, who overlooked the latest graduate from the Wallsend Boys Club in the North-east throughout his England tenure and is the main reason a 25-year-old heralded for several seasons has a mere seven international caps to his name.

Though Eriksson's judgement does not hold much weight after a dreadful performance at the World Cup finals, there were others within the England camp in Germany who, while deeply impressed with the quality and range of Carrick's passing, felt that he did not impose himself enough on games or on a squad of imposing personalities and egos.

Carrick made his international debut in a friendly against Mexico in 2001 but, despite impressing on England's 2005 tour of the United States, it would be another five years before he made his first appearance in the competitive arena in the World Cup second-round tie against Ecuador. In Stuttgart the midfielder initially brought rare composure to an England performance and his desire to seek out Rooney with a procession of first-time passes augurs well for United, although after an anonymous second-half display, when his colleagues reverted to the long ball over his head, the-then Tottenham player was not deployed again by Eriksson.

Two goals in 75 appearances for Tottenham highlights another area for improvement, even if Carrick's modus operandi is to create, not execute, and behind the pace of Rooney, Louis Saha, Giuseppe Rossi and perhaps even the prolific Dutch international Dirk Kuyt, he will have plenty of opportunity to enhance a reputation for intelligent distribution.

United's commitment to an incentive-laden deal demonstrates both confidence and caution in Carrick's future, the hope being that, like Frank Lampard before him, the former Hammer will blossom with age. Ferguson must hope he blossoms with haste.

Ferguson's midfield flops

* JUAN SEBASTIAN VERON

Signed: £28.1m from Lazio, July 2001. Sold: £15m to Chelsea, August 2003. Games: 82. Struggled to adapt to the physical side of the Premiership.

* KLEBERSON

Signed: £5.9m from Paranese, August 2003. Sold: £2.5m to Besiktas, August 2005. Games: 29. Failed to offer a viable alternative to Roy Keane and Paul Scholes.

* ERIC DJEMBA-DJEMBA

Signed: £3.5m from Nantes, July 2003. Sold: £1.35m to Aston Villa, January 2005. Games: 34.Touted as a potential successor to Keane but failed to show why.

* LIAM MILLER

Signed: Free from Celtic, July 2004. Games: 22. Arrived with a reputation as a promising youngster, but performances have been underwhelming so far.

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