Michael Carrick is working wonders at Middlesbrough. At the end of October 2022 he was handed his first permanent managerial job, rocking up at Riverside Stadium to a club that was languishing in 22nd place in the Championship.
Boro had parted company with Chris Wilder, widely regarded as one of the Football League’s finest, and plumped for the former Manchester United man who had just three caretaker games in charge of the north-west giants on his CV. It was a risk, but one that Steve Gibson and the club are now reaping the rewards from.
After a key win over Sheffield United, Boro are remarkably now just four points adrift of the second-placed Blades when it looked for all the world like the automatic places were sewn up just a couple of weeks ago. With his tactical innovations, such as transition into a 3-2-5 formation in attacking situations, Boro have blown away the opposition and Carrick currently boasts a ridiculous 72% win rate.
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When on the ball and threatening the opposition back-line, Carrick’s side usually have at least three players in central areas in the box, which leads to more goal-scoring opportunities and more goals. It’s worked a treat so far, and now Boro are in serious contention to return to the Premier League, something that seemed unthinkable before the World Cup break.
Carrick’s success is truly impressive and he is part of a trend that has shaped European football over the past few years. Defensive, play-making midfielders make the best managers. Pep Guardiola has dominated the Premier League, winning four of the last five editions with a Manchester City side that has left us marvelling at their talent and tactical play.
When Guardiola first joined the Premier League, he was mocked by pundits for trying to play out from the back. How he has silenced those morons. But he has a new challenger this year, moulded in his own style in former assistant Mikel Arteta. The Spaniard has taken what he learned under Pep and put it into action at Arsenal with his Gunners side currently sitting top of the table.
The styles of play are similar. Both are possession-based with a focus on influential wingers and both have shown an incredible level of football intelligence to get results. On the continent, it is a similar story. Barcelona have struggled in recent times amid their financial woes, but Xavi has crafted a team in his own image and they now lead La Liga by eight points, hoping to win their first league title since 2019. They haven’t won one without Lionel Messi since 1999, with a squad that featured both Guardiola and Xavi, but the latter is changing things at the Camp Nou.
It's no coincidence both managers have had roaring success in each system.
You can see how Carrick's team are coached here:
All three, like Carrick, filled the same position as players. Arguably, the number six role - the deep-lying playmaker - is the one which requires the most footballing intelligence and the best understanding of the game. Xavi knew exactly where the rest of his Barcelona team were at any one time, and could picture how he wanted the play to develop before he’d even received the ball.
The same can be said of Carrick, Guardiola and Arteta. All three had to use their footballing brains rather than their physicality to make it at the highest level, and the quartet became undroppable for their respective managers. Working with some of the finest bosses in the game must have taught them a lot.
Guardiola played under Johan Cruyff, Sir Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal amongst others. Xavi played under Guardiola himself, Arteta learnt from Arsene Wenger, while Carrick was at United with Sir Alex Ferguson. It’s a collection of some of the finest managers the game has ever seen.
No wonder their products have achieved such remarkable success. The combination of footballing intelligence and brilliant schooling seems to have produced students who are destined for the top of the game. Whereas single-minded goalkeepers never become managers, the deep-lying playmaker position seems to keep on producing elite level coaches. Cue Frenkie De Jong’s Barcelona winning the quadruple in 2038.
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