Man Utd beat Villarreal 2-0 in the Champions League as Michael Carrick’s spell in caretaker charge got off to the perfect start.
Michael Carrick has probably played in a few of these games. It’s straight out of the coaching textbook for European away games and something that Manchester United excelled in under Sir Alex Ferguson.
After suggesting on Monday that he wouldn’t deviate too far from the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer masterplan, Carrick showed the shrewdness and tactical nous to suggest he might have a future in this game.
For over an hour United sat back in the Estadio de la Ceramica and soaked up everything Villarreal had to throw at them, which wasn’t much. It wasn’t great to watch but a porous defence had been sharpened up in the space of one training session. They gave nothing away.
Then when the game was up for grabs Carrick acted. His double substitution with 25 minutes to go led to United’s best spell of the game and they took their chances to secure qualification with a game to spare, something that has looked in jeopardy at various times in this Champions League run.
Nobody should be getting carried away with a win against the 12th best team in La Liga, but there was encouragement for United and Carrick. He dragged a deflated team off the floor and unveiled a game plan that worked well. A third clean sheet in 26 games was a statement of his ability as a coach, something that has been criticised in recent weeks.
There have been plenty of pundits suggesting that Carrick, Mike Phelan and Kieran McKenna should have followed Solskjaer out the door, but this was a sweet riposte to critics.
Carrick had been much more subdued than Solskjaer in his pre-match media duties but that reticence didn’t follow him to the Estadio de la Ceramica. While Solskjaer liked to delegate, Carrick looked keen to make it clear he was in charge.
After finishing his broadcast interviews he stood on the touchline, arms folded, watching the warm-up, despite the presence of Kieran McKenna and Darren Fletcher, who were overseeing the drills from the centre circle.
Once the game kicked-off Carrick remained on his feet throughout, stood on the very edge of his technical area. He was a constant presence in the ears of his players but clearly wanted to be front and centre when they looked to the dugout. While Solskjaer liked a rotating cast of staff there, Carrick was very much the man in charge.
He had said on Monday he had no idea how long his caretaker reign would last and perhaps that uncertainty encouraged him to be bold with his team selection. It was certainly a surprise to see Bruno Fernandes drop to the bench and Carrick didn’t try and frame that decision as an attempt to rest the attacking midfielder.
Watching the way Carrick set his team up a role for Fernandes wasn’t immediately obvious. From the first attack Cristiano Ronaldo dropped to the left and Anthony Martial went through the centre, but as United dropped into shape out of possession it turned into a 4-4-2, with Fred on the left of midfield.
Van de Beek was more central midfield than the traditional Fernanes role as a No. 10, but it was clear he had told to press Villarreal centrally when they played out from the back, with Ronaldo and Martial dropping wide to cover the easy passes out.