In José Mourinho’s quest for the winning formula, he had at least found his midfield axis: Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick.
As Manchester United hunted for a first three points since beating Swansea City on 6 November this match against Tottenham Hotspur was the fifth game the two players started together in the engine room and the second league outing in succession following the draw at Everton last week.
Mourinho required some time to be convinced of Carrick’s worth, in particular. Perhaps the United manager harboured reservations over the ability of the England international, now aged 35, to deal with the physical demands of the Premier League.
Carrick’s wait for a first league start under Mourinho lasted until that visit to Swansea, when he lined up in a midfield that featured Marouane Fellaini and Paul Pogba, but no Herrera, in the 3-1 victory. For the next match, Arsenal’s visit to Old Trafford, Carrick and Herrera were put together for a first time in the league, a game that ended 1-1, one of the six draws this United side have now recorded.
Carrick’s role is to be the calm metronome who sits in front of the back four and acts as a defensive shield and starting point of attack. Herrera’s task is to flit from end to end and make the kind of darting run that opened up Spurs during the opening quarter-hour.
Here the Spaniard drifted behind the last line and turned the ball back towards Henrikh Mkhitaryan whose shot needed sharp work from Hugo Lloris to stop.
Carrick and Herrera both possess the prerequisite of the midfield schemer: an elevated football brain constantly assessing the game.
So it was that after United’s opener Carrick recognised a chance to glide upfield into a position near the Tottenham box. The deft chip that cut out the Spurs defence and came close to releasing Pogba was a reminder of how varied Carrick’s armoury is.
This was as far as Carrick advanced during the first half, in contrast to the red blur of Herrera. One moment the Spaniard was creating Mkhitaryan’s first home goal and the next unluckily conceding a free-kick for a challenge on Christian Eriksen.
The Herrera pass that created the opener was in the classic midfielder mould as he slid the ball beyond Spurs’ rearguard from where Mkhitaryan scored. The goal separated the sides at half-time. Yet Carrick, whose last league goal was against this same opposition in March 2015, came close to doubling the lead. Only Lloris’s fingertips deflected his 30-yard shot over the top in a fine opening 45 minutes for the midfield pair.
Before the game Mourinho bewailed the draws that have hobbled United’s campaign, saying: “Given how well we have played while getting frustrating results in the Premier League, perhaps we can play badly and win today.”
United have been unable to close out proceedings when ahead this season, conceding five times from the 80th minute. Here they had purred along in the first half with an impressive collective effort in which the contribution of Carrick and Herrera was vital – and as the second half started the demand was for them to maintain this and help ensure only a third league victory since late September.
Carrick and Herrera were at the forefront of stifling Spurs as the visiting side pressed for 15 minutes after the restart. When Son Heung-Min threatened along the right a Carrick challenge helped the ball back to David de Gea. Next Dele Alli was pickpocketed by his partner which caused the Stretford End to chant “Ander Herrera, Ander Herrera” in admiration.
The 27-year-old’s all-round performance also featured a tackle on Danny Rose near his area and a run into the opposition’s to lay on a fine pass from which Pogba should have made the score 2-0.
From this juncture the combination of Carrick and Herrera were in cruise control largely because of the latest bright display from Mkhitaryan, who constantly posed questions of the opposition and was unlucky to be injured doing so as the contest entered its final minutes. This was a sour note for United but the only one.
By the close they had broken the long league drought and for a sixth outing Mourinho’s team were unbeaten with Carrick and Herrera as the central duo. When the latter was taken off in the 96th minute he received a deserved rapturous ovation. Half of it might have been for Carrick, too.
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