Tottenham Hotspur head north to Manchester tomorrow to take on Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, a match-up that surely be all about the football on the pitch and not at all about the Portuguese manager’s antics on the sidelines. Spurs currently sit in fifth place on 27 points, six ahead of their opponent Sunday. Ahead of the match, I sat down with Andi over at SBN’s United blog, The Busby Babe, to talk about Jose Mourinho, whether or not frostbite hit the players in Ukraine, and what the expectations have been like around Old Trafford for the last couple of seasons.
CFC: Manchester United haven't really been themselves since Sir Alex Ferguson left. What's the overall opinion of the club's direction among supporters?
BB: Ah, a nice easy one to start with. Er … well, on the question of the manager, let's go for guarded positivity with a healthy dose of scepticism (with allowances for both Mourinho fanboys and girls, of which there are some, and those that hated Mourinho, hate Mourinho, and want to go on hating him after a quick sacking).
On the wider picture, United are an extremely hard club to like at the moment, much less love, even if supporting them is far too ingrained to shrug off. The Glazers are still leeching the cash away, Ed Woodward is still pottering around like he runs the place -- what do you mean, "he does"? -- and there have been a number of run-ins this season between the club authorities and fans over pointlessly draconian penalties imposed for season-ticket rule breaches. Meanwhile, the club continues to chase Official Constipation Relief partners. "Marouane Fellaini: guaranteed to loosen you up at the back!"
United are currently in sixth place on 21 points, six points behind Tottenham. What's been the biggest ups and downs as far as the squad and tactics go?
There are two major problems, I think. The first is that United cannot close games out. 1-0 leads become 1-1 draws; and against Watford, a 1-1 draw became a 3-1 defeat. The sense is that Mourinho doesn't quite trust his defence, and so United tend to drop deeper at matches go on, which never seems to work. As for the squad in general, the exile of Henrikh Mkhitaryan was deeply peculiar and possibly even damaging to United's title chances, even if it seems to have ended to the benefit of all concerned.
On the other hand, Wayne Rooney's relegation to squad player has been handled well: he's playing less and playing a bit better, which is useful. All the new arrivals have done at least fine, and Eric Bailly looks very promising. Ander Herrera, Juan Mata and Antonio Valencia are all playing noticeably better than last season. Besides, Mourinho's a chequebook manager, so there will be changes to come.
You spent the GDP of multiple small nations on Paul Pogba. Has Mourinho managed to break him already or has it just been the standard adjustment to a new club and league?
Personally, and there are plenty of United fans who disagree with me, I think he's been getting steadily better as the season's progressed. It turns out that a player being really expensive doesn't mean that the same player can ignore such trifling things as "a pre-season" or "getting to know his colleagues". He's not quite dominating games yet -- he can be a little sloppy in possession, and sometimes hangs on to the ball a little long -- but he's the best crosser and long passer of a ball United have had in ages. There are plenty of bigger problems to worry about.
Speaking of Jose, do you still sing his name to the tune of Ave Maria or has the honeymoon worn off?
I can't speak for the singing, but there is general patience, I think. Or at least I hope. It's important to remember that United and Mourinho is a marriage of both convenience and of necessity. Convenient because one was looking for a manager while the other was out of work; necessary because United have had three weird seasons of disappointing underachievement and had to dismiss two managers, while at the same time Chelsea and Mourinho had one. Well, one half of one.
So while it would have been nice for Mourinho to stride in and instantly change United into a swaggering, title-challenging force, the fact that is hasn't happened isn't necessarily cause for concern. Or even much of a surprise. United have been a strange club ever since the Glazers took over. Mourinho being Mourinho doesn't change that. And progress, while slow and stuttering, is being made. United are significantly better to watch this season that the last three, and keeping up appearances are an important part of keeping any marriage fresh. Which sounded far more superficial than I intended.
Spurs are about to join United in the Europa League. Besides possibly losing toes in Ukraine on Thursday to frostbite, how do you feel about United's chances in winning the competition?
Luckily, all United's toes appear to have survived the experience. You'd have to say United's chances are pretty decent: it's not the strongest field in Europa League history, and since it offers a back door into the Champions League and United aren't doing too well in the league, we can probably expect Mourinho to take it relatively seriously. That said, United can lose out of nowhere, as the trips to Feyenoord and Fenerbahce both demonstrate. So there's no place for cockiness.
What in the world happened with Morgan Schneiderlin? He was a big pick up for United and has practically fallen off the face of the Earth.
The first job of any footballer is to persuade their manager that they deserve to be in the team, and Schneiderlin -- who on paper is exactly the player United could do with in midfield -- appears to have consistently failed to do so. After all, when one strange, idiosyncratic egoist decides, after seeing you in training, that you're actually not very good, that's unfortunate. When a second comes along and decides the same thing, that's not a good look.
How do you expect United to line up on Sunday?
The certainties are David de Gea in goal, Antonio Valencia at right-back, Ander Herrera and Paul Pogba in midfield, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. After that, I'm guessing, but I suspect Michael Carrick will start with Pogba pushed forwards, with Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the wide positions. At the back, no idea. Personal preference would be Eric Bailly and Phil Jones -- what a world! -- with Daley Blind at left-back, but it could be anyone. Fellaini will come on after 64 minutes.
What's your prediction for the match?
This game positively screams 1-1.
We want to thank Andi for taking time out to answer our questions. I did the same for The Busby Babe in their own Q&A segment, so check it out when you get a chance. (A link will be included once it goes live on their site.)