Off The Post has always liked the comparison of older soccer players to wine, because like most wines, few players actually get better with age. That’s why 30 is such an important milestone in every (outfield) player’s career, because it (usually) represents the point at which one’s speed and agility stop improving, and in fact, start moving in the opposite direction.
Of course, speed and agility aren’t everything. In fact, one characteristic that is commonly shared among the players that have achieved true longevity (that is, a career at the top-level beyond the age of 33) is an ability to read and react to the game. And many teams have even carved out a specific role for these kinds of players: the deep-lying playmaker who sits just in front of the defense and tries to control the game using his vision and intelligence. Obviously, Juventus midfielder Andrea Pirlo, 35, is the classic example, but Xabi Alonso, 33, also does this for Bayern Munich, as does Xavi Hernandez, 35, for Barcelona.
At the international level, England has long bemoaned its lack of such a player. In fact, for many pundits, the team’s failure to replace Paul Scholes, who retired from international competition way back in 2004, has been cited as a key reason for the Three Lions’ failure to challenge for any international trophies.
Indeed, if you’ve watched England play any top-level teams over the last 10 years, you might have noticed that keeping the ball has been a persistent problem.
Enter Michael Carrick.
Literally, yesterday, with England trailing 1-0 to Italy in a friendly in Turin, towards the end of the first half (Note: he also played the full 90 against Lithuania last Friday, but that was a very one-sided 4-0 win).
Indeed, the Manchester United midfielder came on and -- in the second half, in particular -- completely turned a game Italy was dominating on its head, controlling the midfield with his intelligence and range of passing, opening up spaces on either side of the field that would result in chance after chance for Roy Hodgson’s men. While Andros Townsend ultimately smacked home the equalizer, captain Wayne Rooney had no question as to who the man of the match was.
“The best player on the pitch by a mile was Michael Carrick,” Rooney told ITV after the game, which ended 1-1. “He came on and dictated the game for us you -- saw how much control we had after that. I think he was the big difference between two teams in second half.”
Suddenly, the Twittersphere erupted, as if the whole of England at once had the same “Aha!” moment: ‘This is the player we’ve been missing,’ they cried. ‘Where has he been all these years?’ they asked.
Well, as it turns out, he’s been more or less available, which has given birth to a new hashtag: #JusticeForCarrick.
Unbelievably, a player who former coach Sir Alex Ferguson called “the best English player in the game” earlier this season, has received just 33 England call-ups throughout his 14-year international career, including just one appearance at a major competition: a 1-0 win against Ecuador in the round of 16 at the 2006 World Cup.
How is this possible? Well, since Scholes’ international retirement in 2004, Carrick has suffered from every England coach’s insistence on trying to play the frustratingly similar Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard together in the center, which more-or-less never worked against top teams. As a result, Carrick barely got a sniff.
Sure, it’s always easy to play Monday morning quarterback in any sport, but you have to wonder how former England managers Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren, Fabio Capello and Roy Hodgson all managed to pass this player over.
Unfortunately for England fans, Carrick is already 33, and while he may be aging like fine wine and should still make it to Euro 2016 (provided he stays healthy and Hodgson decides to pick him), anything beyond that, you really can’t say, given his age.