"4th on the table, eh? Preeeety sneaky there, Newcastle!"
Our good friend Gene Um over at Manchester United's fan blog, The Busby Babe, was kind enough to partake in a lovely session of Q and A with us over here at CHN. You can find my responses to his questions here, but please be advised my prediction was made before the news about a certain terrifying African midfielder was finalized. With Tiote out of the mix, I'll be satisfied with a draw. Gene provided some wonderful and in-depth responses to my frail attempt at questions, and his answers will certainly help contextualize our upcoming opponent.
1. Describe if you will how this season has measured up to expectations, especially considering coming off of a Champions League Final appearance. Are you about where you'd expect to be heading into December? Is there anything (besides Newcastle) that surprises you about the table?
The overall body of work has been a bit disappointing. United were off to a sensational start and spirits were high after defeating Spurs, Arsenal, and Chelsea in the early going. There was even more optimism when the Champions League draw came and it appeared that United would win their group quite easily. Things changed.
A high number of shots were conceded on goal in August and September, despite the victories piling up. It was slightly alarming then and it was fully exposed versus Manchester City. Since the derby disaster, manager Sir Alex Ferguson has tightened things up in the back and in central midfield. There seems to be more emphasis on keeping things compact between the lines. The result of this has been a sound defensive shape but it has hindered the attack. Going forward, SAF will need to find a balance between the early season free-flowing attack and the sound defense that his side has played recently.
If I am not mistaken, this is actually the 2nd highest point total by United after 12 matches in the Premier League era. City being five points clear shows how well they have played domestically. But it is quite disappointing to be 5 points shy of the "noisy neighbours." We expected to be at the top of the table or closer to it (in terms of points) heading into December but panic has not set in. If we fall further off the pace by the new year -- after our relatively easy stretch of the fixture list coinciding with a difficult one for City -- then many will begin to worry. In the mean time, United need to earn qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League when they travel to Basel, Switzerland in two weeks time. This is a bit shocking.
Certainly Newcastle sitting 4th catches the eye but other than that, nothing about the table is too terribly surprising from my perspective. I thought Wigan would be better because I think Roberto Martinez is a fine manager.
See some more questions and wonderful responses from Gene after the jump!2. What was it like going from the 8-2 thrashing of Arsenal in August at Old Trafford to that horrible Man City game just two months later? Was the Man City indicative of larger issues, or just a flash in a Balotelli-laced pan? Also, what changed between Man U's victory over City in the Community Shield to start the season and October 23rd?
Those extreme results do well to emphatically represent our season to an extent. The Arsenal match displayed the pace and fluidity in attack by the likes of Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck, Ashley Young, and Nani. They were assisted well by Anderson and Tom Cleverley dictating tempo from the center of the pitch and also by providing driving runs into the box. However, the defense was continually exposed as too much space was left between the lines. Opponents were exposing this but none so ruthlessly as City did. Arsenal were reeling at the time due to their summer transfer drama so I don't have any wild fantasies that we're that much better than them. By similar rationale, I don't think City is 6-1 better than United. Simply, City manager Roberto Mancini got his tactics right at Old Trafford and his 'interiores' for that match -- David Silva and James Milner -- exposed the space between the lines and created chance after chance. SAF's recent tactics seem intent on solving that issue.
3. Since that Man City nightmare, you've put together a string of impressive but hard fought one goal League wins over Everton, Sunderland, and Swansea. What has been the difference? Were these victories less one-sided than you expected?
Injuries have effected the club quite a bit recently and that has been a partial reason why our attacking flair has disappeared. It got to the point where we had to drop Rooney a bit deeper into the central midfield as a 'box-to-box' type of player. Another reason has been the emphasis in securing the defensive shape. Against Everton and Sunderland, Darren Fletcher played in a strict holding role behind two more advanced central midfielders. Against Swansea, Michael Carrick played much deeper than his midfield partner for that match, Ryan Giggs. This was a change from the fast and fluid 4-4-2 Fergie had mostly deployed for the season's start. Fletcher's role helped fortify the previously mentioned between the lines space that other side's had been exposing. The 3 away points at Goodison Park and Liberty Stadium were good results and the scoreline (in my opinion) were fairly indicative of the matches. United were not stellar but played well enough to justify the results. The Sunderland match was a disappointing match in terms of quality, despite the victory. Perhaps the players were a bit distracted by the grand occasion -- a pre-match celebration of SAF's 25 years at the club.
SAF is trying to change the focus by introducing more sound defensive principles in his side. The games have been ugly affairs but the results are coming. If I had to guess, the boss is happy -- when considering context that is -- and perhaps he's hoping this reaps benefit later on in the season when United hopefully find that balance between an attack with flair and a defense that is fundamentally sound. The club has a history of coming on strong during the run-in. But they must be careful not to lose any more ground on City in the mean time.
4. What is your Champions League prognosis? You're undefeated in the Group Stage but are still trailing Benfica on away goals. How important were the two away goals conceded to Benfica at Old Tafford? Where do you expect Man U to finish in Europe this year?
The away draw at Benfica in Lisbon was a decent result as were the two victories over Otelul Galait (even if they were not too convincing). The draws at Old Trafford versus FC Basel and Benfica were very disappointing and United are in their now vulnerable position because of those two matches. The equaliser scored by Benfica on Tuesday night was extremely disheartening. It not only provided Benfica the advantage of having one more away goal than United, but it also came at a time during the match where the Reds were completely dictating the match and playing their best football in quite some time. A simple concentration lapse changed the entire complexion of both that match and the group standing.
United now need a result in Basel -- a draw or victory would be enough to send them through to the knockout stages. However, Benfica control their own destiny in terms of winning the group as three points in Lisbon versus Galati (a likely result) wins the group because of the reasons you stated in the question. A second place finish in Group C exposes United to potentially facing the likes of FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Bayern Munich in the first round of the knockout stages. Far from ideal.
Perhaps I'm biased as a United fan but I still think they're a top 5 side in Europe. I think the two Spanish giants are clearly better right now and also at the current moment, I think Bayern and City are slightly better (that hurt to admit that about City). I have faith United will improve as the season progresses so they need to take care of business in Switzerland on December 7 and hope for a favorable draw. Where I expect United to finish is entirely dependent on their possible draw. But I don't think we conquer Europe this season.
5. Alan Pardew has said he thinks your team is in "transition," trying harder to emulate Barcelona's style of play than the one Sir Alex is famous for. Do you agree with these comments? If you are trying to emulate Barca, what changes need to be made to personnel or style?
I haven't seen Pardew's comments so I can only respond to the context of this question. I think SAF attempted to move closer to a fast and fluid attacking style at season's beginning -- think of Rooney, Welbeck, Nani, and Young interchanging in attack with quick one-touch passing and intelligent movement off the ball. But I don't think this is an attempt to match Barca, it's perhaps an attempt to emulate United's 2008 Champions League winning side.
In my humble opinion, no one is going to beat Barca by trying to outplay them in their own style. The team that knocks the Catalan side off their European perch -- if this even happens before the likes of Xavi, Puyol, etc simply age and decline eventually -- will do it with tactics that differ from Barca. I think 2008 United side could compete with them and that side actually did knock out an up-and-coming Barca side in the semi-final that season -- Pep' Guardiola's side admittedly has improved since then.
But the principles of SAF's side then was sound defensive structure in their 4-2-1-3/4-2-3-1ish shape and the fluidity of the front three attackers. Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick pulled the strings from deep and ignited United's lethal counterattack. Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, and Park Ji-sung were all capable of playing anywhere in attack and they were geniuses on the counter. This fluidity and free-flowing style is the way I think SAF tried to transition back into at the season's beginning. Players like Young and Welbeck provide similar versatility where the likes of Dimitar Berbatov and Antonio Valencia are rigid in their positional flexibility. The latter two are useful squad players (Valencia brilliant when in form) but I think the fluid ways of 2008 is what SAF may desire -- based on the hints of his tactics in August and September.
His body of work in the early season epitomized his time at United. Stellar in the early going but a steep decline in form followed. Inconsistency is what has plagued him most since his move to Old Trafford. His injury is impactful because he hinders the depth in central midfield during a time when the fixture list is congested. Even when in poor form, he at least allows SAF to use him when the squad is rotated. Giggs, Carrick, and Fletcher have all dealt with various knocks recently as well. Tom Cleverley appears to out another month. Rooney is better suited closer to goal. Maybe youngster Paul Pogba -- a highly regarded 18-year-old -- will get more opportunity to feature.
7. And finally, good sir, a prediction, if you would be so kind...
I fear an ugly match. 1-0 United seems to fit recent trends.