As Michael Carrick walked into the dressing room at Stamford Bridge to deliver his half-time team talk, he expected to see Cristiano Ronaldo among those in the audience. Instead, the player brought back to Manchester United to help to return the club to their glory days was on the pitch warming up.
Sitting on the bench is no place to be for the five-time Ballon d’Or winner. After kicking his heels for 45 minutes, he made it clear he was ready to make an impact on the game.
“The way he responded was perfection, really,” said Carrick. “Around the dressing room, he was incredible, he supported the players. I went in to do my half-time team talk and he was warming up 10 minutes in advance, ready to come on in the second half.”
It has now been two matches, both unbeaten, for Carrick as caretaker manager and in both he has made big calls with team selection and his two most creative players.
For the victory against Villarreal, it was Bruno Fernandes on the bench. At Chelsea, it was Ronaldo.
Carrick says they can adapt to play in the same team, but so far his starting XIs have included either United’s best player in the last two years, or their most famous one, who supporters come to see.
The tactic has worked. United went into the intervals in both games goalless after keeping it tighter than the last days of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign. In the second halves, they unleashed both their Portuguese attackers and snatched goals, and positive results.
Next for Carrick to ponder is Arsenal tonight, against Mikel Arteta’s young attackers who have the ability to pounce on errors and attack with pace, just as much as they are susceptible to being overrun by an attack with Ronaldo and Fernandes combining.
Carrick describes the two results under him as showing “another side” to United’s game, implying a solidity that comes with an eye on defensive duties.
Fernandes’s best work has been as a No 10, while Ronaldo is economising his movement as United’s No 9. With Ralf Rangnick ready to take charge until the end of the season, the German godfather of coaching may have to change how Ronaldo and Fernandes play to get them in the same starting line-up.
When asked whether it was impossible for Ronaldo to play in a pressing team, Carrick said: “You just said it is myth, maybe it is a myth. Maybe that is how it is, he’s played in enough teams over the years being successful to play in a variety of ways and kept scoring goals for every team.
“With any player, whoever you play with, you adapt. I certainly did that as a player and you play to the strengths of each other and try to almost complement each other whichever player is playing in the team, as a unit or a pair in front or behind each other.”
Carrick has suggested that leaving United’s biggest star on the bench was not a huge decision, regardless of the arguments it sparked in the Sky Sports television studios alone. As Alex Ferguson was caught saying earlier in the season, you pick your best players.
“There are a lot of things you have to take into consideration when you make a decision on picking a team,” said Carrick. “Some players bring things to the table, other players bring other things to the table.
“You have fitness, tiredness, freshness, there’s tactics, there’s personality and character within that. It seems like it is a big decision but really, between us and me personally, it wasn’t. I think a lot can be made of it and spinning it in a negative way, but behind the scenes and the reality is very different.
“I think those type of decisions get blown up more than they are when you’re inside the team and the club,” Carrick added. “I didn’t see it as a major decision. We all got on really well, the game went well, to an extent, and it wasn’t a drama at all.”
The good news for Rangnick is that Edinson Cavani has returned from South America – after working on his fitness away from Carrington – and centre-half Raphael Varane is also running on grass as he returns from injury. They will not return for the Arsenal game, but more big decisions lie ahead for the caretaker before the interim takes charge.
The German is expected to be in the stand tonight with the club hoping he can formally take charge ahead of Sunday’s visit of Crystal Palace if his work permit issue is resolved.
“I haven’t got anything to update on,” said Carrick, who said he has yet to speak with Rangnick.
“The process of the work permit and visa is ongoing as we speak.
“I am in this position, as I was for Villarreal and Chelsea. I’m getting the boys ready for game tomorrow night.
“It is pretty much as it was for both games. Because of the process we haven’t been able to (speak).”
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