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Know Your Opponent: Manchester United

Clive Mason

If there's such a thing as a "must win" game for Tottenham Hotspur and first team coach Andre Villas-Boas, it just might be the one upcoming this Sunday. With an anemic offense, a stout defense that was just lit up for six by Manchester City, and a coach that is under fire from fans and (supposedly) the Tottenham board, it's unfortunate then that the next match happens to be against the defending league champions, Manchester United. But United isn't without its own problems, breaking in a new manager who is trying to cope with succeeding the most successful gaffer in league history.

To talk about these issues and more, I sat down with Callum Hamilton, editor of The Busby Babe, SB Nation's Manchester United blog. He answered some questions for me, and I answered some for his in a feature on that site later today.

[Editor's note: these questions were asked and answered before the release of David Hytner's article about Andre Villas-Boas.]


Uncle Menno: Well, here we are. Two bloggers representing two teams with lofty ambitions, but underperforming and coming off of disappointing results last weekend, and with two managers that are in the hot seat. So what's wrong with United? Is it fixable?

Callum Hamilton: It should be easily fixable were United operating at full financial firepower, but they aren't, so it takes some nous in the transfer market. United at this point are in an odd position because they have a lot of great cornerstones around which a team could be built, but a lot of dross as well. Unfortunately, the latter are taking their time in leaving, and there seems to be more of them in the team every year.

UM: I think it's safe to say that the transition from Fergie to David Moyes hasn't gone as smoothly as you would have hoped. Is Moyes' start to the year with essentially the exact same United squad that won the EPL last season (plus Fellaini) evidence of Moyes' lack of tactical acumen, or of Ferguson's uncanny ability to "overachieve" and milk every shred of talent and effort from his teams? Is Moyes just not the right man for the job, or should he be given the benefit of the doubt for now?

My feeling is that we won't make fourth unless we make drastic changes in January.

CH: It's more Ferguson's ability to overachieve, but Moyes hasn't helped himself with some odd decisions. It's taken him a very long time to get to know the squad, and while you say it's the same team as last year, that doesn't make the point that everybody else in the league has strengthened hugely.

Moyes could come good. He's been very slow to get used to things, and he's a bit of a ditherer, so there's every chance we could be playing far better later on in the year. Equally, there's every chance we won't, or it'll be far too late for that. My feeling is that we won't make fourth unless we make drastic changes in January, replacing at least two starters or getting rid of Moyes for someone better. Finding a manager who can do better will be far more difficult and far less likely, so we're reliant on hoping we can figure things out with new signings - and also hoping that Moyes knows what to do with them.

UM: Let's examine this weekend's match. United are taking on a Spurs side that are a offensive (and, yes, that is a double-entendre) train wreck, but one desperate for a positive result. Two part question: A) You're the United manager. How do you approach this match at White Hart Lane tactically? B) What do you think Moyes will actually do, if different?

CH: I don't place a great deal of stock in tactical opinions, and especially at United, you have to really just look at the team you're going to send out. Jones, our best midfielder, is fit so should be an automatic pick and Fellaini should go in alongside him, with Rooney and Van Persie up front and Januzaj and Valencia on the wings. Rafael badly needs to come back into the team, and we ought to have Vidic and Evans at centre-back. That's our best team.

As well though, it should deal with Spurs' threat nicely. You have a powerful midfield, but Jones and Fellaini can't be bullied. Soldado isn't really dangerous at anything but he's not got the pace to trouble Vidic and Evans, so he wouldn't be getting a sniff there. Evra and Rafael should be able to cope with any of your wide players. And our forwards should be able to do the rest, backed up by having Januzaj and Valencia/Nani running at Rose and Walker.

UM: What are the key personnel match-ups in this game? Who are Spurs' danger-men (lol) and what should United do to counter them?

CH: Partly answered this above, but I think the main thing is to make sure we can get a goal ourselves. The worry is one of your wide-men will create something - I just don't think Soldado is very good at all. But really, the issue is just to not allow your midfield to cram us all into our own penalty area and then send Townsend and Lamela running impotently at us until someone sticks a leg out and Soldado can put the penalty away. That may be slightly harsh but that seems to be your modus operandi at the moment.

UM: What's the one area that United needs to focus on in the January transfer window to improve? Who, if anyone, should they sign?

CH: Creativity and pace in midfield. Ilkay Gundogan and Ander Herrera would each address both of these things. We could also do with a winger who can cross the ball and run past people and pass and shoot and, well, play football.

UM: As a sort-of-neutral, what's your take on Andre Villas-Boas? Should his job be in danger, and if so, who would you replace him with?

I'd take Harry Redknapp back. But that's not going to happen.

CH: I would replace him, but I wouldn't replace him with anybody, if that makes sense. If it's just a case of 'should he be sacked' then my answer is 'yes, obviously', but of course you don't just sack a manager and that's that - you replace a manager. I can't think of anybody I'd have in and be confident to do a better job.

Well, I can, and I'd take Harry Redknapp back. But that's not going to happen. AVB might figure it out on his own after a while but if you want to get fourth you need someone like Redknapp. The only other option at the moment is to give someone like Mackay a shot at it, which is questionable.

The thing is, if recent reports - of lost dressing rooms and so on - are accurate, then there's really no option but to get rid. It's a tough situation.

UM: Why is Manchester United going to be relegated this season? Please be thorough.

CH: Because fans see themselves as the club's PR department. All of our players are amazing, all of the time. This means that we spend an alarming amount of time apologising for mediocrity, which is going to end in tears. Michael Carrick is average at best and appalling much of the time but our fans seem to think he's world-class. They apologise for Ashley Young. They think one Wayne Rooney deflected goal makes up for twenty wasted attacks. They think Tom Cleverley and Anderson should ever be permitted to wear the shirt again.

Basically, Twitter seems to have turned all fans into Liverpool/Celtic fans. And if you act like that, well, you end up being about as good as Liverpool* or Celtic are.

*Subs, please check the usual mid-season implosion and fall to 9th has taken place.

UM: Finally, a score prediction. What's the result, and why?

CH: I actually had a dream about this one, which is not something I'm in the habit of doing. United won 3-2 - Spurs went two up then United nicked a goal back from a corner before half-time. Our equaliser was ridiculous, I can't remember exactly what happened but I think the game had kicked off and you thought it hadn't, because there was a half-time competition like one of those penalty shootouts and you thought it was still that. Which, to be fair, sounds like the sort of thing that would happen to Spurs.

So yeah, I never dream about football but I'm assuming I'm clairvoyant here, so a heroic 3-2 comeback featuring a very controversial equaliser.


Thanks very much to Callum for taking the time to interview with me. Follow Callum on Twitter and check out The Busby Babe, part of the SB Nation network.