Manchester United are revelling in a recent upsurge in form. The swagger appears to be back at Old Trafford, after seven straight victories in all competitions and an unbeaten run in the league since that humbling against Chelsea on October 23.
But what that run has served to highlight is the importance of Michael Carrick to this Manchester United side. He was a bit-part player at the start of the season, but he has become the first name on the teamsheet once again and is yet to lose a game that he has featured in for United this campaign.
At 35, that represents a problem for United. At present, given the way Carrick is performing and the way the team works around him, there seems to be no reason why he couldn’t play on for another season. But the issue of replacing Carrick is looming ever larger on the horizon, in the same way that replacing Paul Scholes was a major headache at Old Trafford.
Carrick arrived at United from Spurs back in the summer of 2006. Over a decade on, despite momentary selection battles with the likes of Owen Hargreaves and Darren Fletcher, Carrick remains as pivotal a figure as he has ever been. He is the glue in the midfield, the forward-passing holding midfielder that allows Paul Pogba and Ander Herrera the freedom to dictate games for United.
Against Reading on Saturday was a perfect demonstration of his talents. Some of his passing was sensational, none more so than his long range pick-out of Marcus Rashford for the forward’s first goal.
So while all is going swimmingly at the moment for United, Jose Mourinho will be well aware that a problem is fast approaching. Replacing Carrick, such a key player and key character, will be a huge test.
There are many, myself included, who believed Morgan Schneiderlin would have made a fine replacement. The midfielder, brought in during the summer of 2015 from Southampton, looks destined to be shipped out for Everton, having played just 11 Premier League minutes this season. Mourinho has deemed him surplus to requirements.
It’s never quite happened for the Frenchman at Old Trafford, and he certainly hasn’t showed the standard that made him a much sought-after player before his move to United.
He has been horrendously managed. Of all the players who regressed under the management of Louis van Gaal, Schneiderlin was perhaps the most noticeable. The Dutchman’s restrictive, risk-free approach appeared to hamper the midfielders at the club.
Mourinho’s arrival offered the chance to start again, to make his mark. But while the likes of Herrera were ignited by the arrival of the Portuguese, Schneiderlin hasn’t been given a chance. Which seems a real shame and a real waste, one United may live to regret.
But Mourinho is best placed to make that judgement. Schneiderlin may not be the man, but United need to be identifying someone for the huge Carrick-shaped hole that will soon appear in the side.
Magic of the Cup? You wouldn’t know it
It’s the annual discussion at this time of year. The FA Cup Third Round forces us all to look at the competition and its value.
What is clear is that it matters hugely to the lower league sides, and isn’t a huge concern of some of the big Premier League clubs. I was at Blackpool v Barnsley on Saturday, a genuinely exciting 0-0 draw where League Two Blackpool forced a replay against Championship Barnsley. It was apparent that both managers were absolutely committed to the tournament and both wanted their sides to get through and get a big Premier League club in the draw. There was passion about the FA Cup.
You also see the scenes at Gander Green Lane, where National League Sutton drew with Wimbledon, and realise how special the cup is to these players and fans.
But then you see the other end of the scale. You see Liverpool resting a raft of players and being held at home by League Two Plymouth. You see Bournemouth change all 11 players and get thrashed by Millwall. And you can’t help but sigh.
The lack of respect shown by Jurgen Klopp, Eddie Howe and others towards the competition is why so many are left to question its future. Bournemouth aren’t seriously at threat of relegation, they only play league football, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have a real crack at the cup.
Liverpool are clearly resting players for their EFL Cup semi-final this week. Is that competition, which used to be the ‘Mickey Mouse Cup’ now more important? Perhaps it is, certainly its schedule and time of season helps it.
But it’s clear that the priority for these top flight clubs is Premier League positions, the money it brings, over the chance to have silverware in the cabinet. Which is a shame.
Chinese mega-money isn’t to be ignored, but it’s all a matter of ambition
The raft of players joining the Chinese Super League has been grabbing headlines left, right and centre. Huge money is being lavished, with the likes of Oscar, Carlos Tevez and John Obi Mikel moving in this window, joining Ramires, Hulk, Alex Teixeira and others in China.
It’s a threat to the Premier League clubs, especially those just outside the powerful elite. But really it’s all down to individuals. The common denominator with all those players is that they weren’t playing great football for a top club.
Ramires, Oscar and Mikel left Chelsea for huge money, but they weren’t first-team regulars. Carlos Tevez was playing in Argentina and has always loved a pay-day.
The concern will come when a top player, a first-choice for a top European club chooses to move for the cash. The Chinese Super League isn’t any sort of standard of football and so any player who prides their career, and what they can achieve, above their pay packet will do what Cristiano Ronaldo allegedly did and reject a mega-bucks move to China.