Is Michael Carrick still key to Paul Pogba’s Manchester United form?

Manchester United midfielders Michael Carrick and Paul Pogba

Michael Carrick has been withdrawn at half-time in each of Manchester United’s last two Premier League matches at Old Trafford but is that the way to get the best from Paul Pogba? Getting the club record signing on the ball in good areas is vital, writes Adam Bate.

Manchester United's 4-1 win over champions Leicester City in September was a big moment for Paul Pogba in his second spell at Old Trafford. He scored his first goal and picked up the man of the match award, relieving some of the pressure surrounding his record transfer fee.

But perhaps the bigger clue to Pogba finding his very best form in a United shirt came late on in the contest when - with the match already won - veteran midfielder Michael Carrick strolled onto the pitch for his first Premier League appearance of the campaign.

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Carrick was surprisingly overlooked in the early stages of the season as Jose Mourinho searched for other solutions. Indeed, he did not get onto the pitch for another month after that Leicester game - starting in another 4-1 win, this time against Fenerbahce.

On that occasion, Mourinho acknowledged that Carrick "gave balance" to the midfield and, for the most part, so it has proved. United have won 14 of the 19 matches that he has started this season, compared to only eight of the 18 for which he has not been included.

It has become customary to talk vaguely of the calm and control Carrick brings; to hear of how he makes those around him better. But how does he do that? Well, getting players like Pogba onto the ball more often and in better areas of the pitch is a key factor.

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Highlights of Manchester United's Premier League draw with Hull City

Even his brief run-out against Leicester offered a hint. Carrick found Pogba with eight passes despite only coming on after 78 minutes. He has not quite kept up that rate since but the midfielder is still finding the club's record signing far more regularly than anyone else.

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Carrick currently averages 14.1 passes to Pogba for every 90 minutes they have been on the pitch together so far in this Premier League season. Ander Herrera is a good user of the ball but even he has only passed to Pogba 10.2 times per 90 minutes.

Marouane Fellaini gets it to his more talented team-mate nine times per game. The likes of Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan manage it around seven times. It might seem a small detail but it is fundamental for Pogba in helping him influence games.

Who passes to Paul Pogba?

Selected players Mins with Pogba Passes to Pogba Passes to Pogba / 90
Michael Carrick 821 129 14.1
Ander Herrera 1547 175 10.2
Marouane Fellaini 758 76 9.0
Wayne Rooney 836 68 7.3
Juan Mata 1013 74 6.6
Henrikh Mkhitaryan 692 50 6.5

Strikers thrive on service but attacking midfielders need it too. Pogba, in particular, is a player who likes to try things when he gets the ball at his feet. In fact, he has lost possession far more times than any other Manchester United player this season.

He is one of only nine players in the Premier League to relinquish possession more than 400 times. However, he is also United's most creative presence on the pitch. Keep giving him the opportunities and eventually he can be expected to come up with the answer.

This is what Carrick does. It is telling that Pogba has been directly involved in more goals in the 821 minutes that he has spent on the pitch alongside Carrick than he has in the 1158 minutes that he has operated without the benefit of his prompting from deep.

NOVEMBER 06 2016: Paul Pogba of Manchester United celebrates with Michael Carrick after scoring in the Premier League match against Swansea
Image: Pogba celebrates with Carrick after scoring the opening goal against Swansea

"He's adapting much better in the relationship with the other players," said Mourinho of his new signing in November. "He is comfortable on the pitch now. That is the best way of saying it. The midfield of Pogba, Carrick and Herrera are playing very well."

And yet, in the last two Premier League home matches - against Liverpool and Hull - Mourinho has been quick to abandon that midfield, taking Carrick off at half time on both occasions. Teams appear to be making it a priority to stop this link up.

Indeed, part of Liverpool's success in stifling United at Old Trafford last month was down to the fact that Carrick only fed the ball to Pogba twice. The Frenchman's frustration led to a particularly poor display in which he seemed to want to do everything but achieved nothing.

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Carrick himself was uncharacteristically out of sorts against Liverpool, serving as a reminder that, at the age of 35, he is no long-term solution for United. Pogba must eventually find another way to be effective without the help of the experienced midfielder behind him.

But for now it seems clear that Mourinho's best team includes the pair of them working together. Certainly, Carrick's removal from the fray against Hull, a move that forced Pogba into deeper areas himself, did not improve United's performance.

So when Mourinho picks his Manchester United side at the weekend, expect Carrick and Pogba to be in it. It's a partnership Leicester will need to stop if they are to succeed. And it's a partnership that Mourinho might need to put his trust in if United are to succeed.

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