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Know Your Opponent: A chat with The Busby Babe

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The Red Devils visit Wembley on Sunday.

Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Tottenham Hotspur welcome in Manchester United on Sunday for Matchday 22 of the campaign. Spurs currently sit in third place, just six points back of Liverpool at the top of the table and a mere two points behind Manchester City for the second spot. Manchester United have had a drama filled roller coaster of a season so far. They’ve sacked Jose Mourinho, qualified for the Champions League knockout rounds, and are playing their best football of the season under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Ahead of the match, I took some time with Brent over at The Busby Babe to ask him how the new project is going under their replacement manager.

CFC) The Jose Mourinho Experience is over. As is tradition, he was sacked in his third season. Overall, what went right and wrong under Mourinho?

TBB: What went right: Mourinho won a couple of trophies, giving the players a taste of silverware in this current United team - something that I maintain is important. He also signed some good players, even if he couldn’t seem get the most out of any of them. Which brings us to what went wrong. If Mourinho was the right man at one point, he certainly got the job at the wrong time. He’s been a shadow of his best self since the Real Madrid experience broke him, and by the time this season started, he was joyless and miserable and he was creating football to match. United’s squad is short of elite, but there is genuine talent in there. Mourinho, with his divisive man-management and negative tactics, essentially threw away a season by making those players much less than the sum of their parts.

How would you summarize Solskjaer’s tactical approach? Has the difference in United’s play been more than simply saying “Go out there and have fun”?

There’s definitely something to be said for “putting smiles back on faces,” even if what Solskjaer has brought goes further than that. Compared to Mourinho, Solskjaer has set his teams out to be much more progressive. The entire team starts further up the pitch, and the full-backs are given much more license to get forward and stay wide. Mourinho didn’t trust his defenders, and compensated by having the back four stay narrow, and the holding midfielder sit right on top of the centerbacks. Solskjaer, by having his teams take the front foot, has gotten improved play from a number of positions - including, somewhat surprisingly, the first choice holding midfielder Matić. With Lindelöf now allowed to bring the ball out of the back, Matić has fewer opportunities to be exposed when he receives the ball in his own half and takes an eternity to turn. With Herrera’s legs now a mainstay in midfield, it also covers for some of Matić’s lack of mobility.

The most obvious and consequential change has been the liberation of Paul Pogba. Pogba now has a free-ish role from the left of center midfield, and his increased role in joining the attack is paying dividends in goals and assists. With Pogba and the full-backs playing further up, the other attackers benefit as well. There are always multiple options when any attacker is in possession, something that wasn’t always the case under Mourinho. Lukaku’s absence has perhaps been timely as well, because Rashford is a far more dynamic presence at the head of the attack, and he has gotten his confidence back under the new manager.

Is Ole likely to mix things up against Spurs (a good team) or continue going full-out attack?

I think we’ll see a similar attacking approach to start the match, but both manager and players say that they’ve spent this week in Dubai preparing for different tactical situations.

Shag / Marry / Shove off a cliff: Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Marouane Fellaini?

Oof. Shag Phil Jones. He’s too clumsy to get the right bits in the right holes, and will likely go off injured halfway through. Marry Marouane Fellaini. There’s a gentle lover and a loyal companion beneath the sly elbows and first touch of a drunk windmill. Shove Chris Smalling off a cliff.

Getting back to Ole, what do you put his chances at of retaining the United job full time and what do you think it would take for him to get an offer?

Impossible to say until he gets through the ridiculous February-March gauntlet of PSG/Liverpool/Arsenal/City. If we come out the other side of that still in Europe, as well as the top 4, then who knows? But for now, Pochettino is quite clearly the first choice. OGS would have to mess around and win the Champions League for him to leapfrog your man.

What players do you think United will look to ship out in the summer and who are they looking to bring in?

Depends on the new manager, I suppose. Valencia looks nearly finished, Rojo and Darmian are mostly pointless, Sánchez has been a bust, and Pereira may leave on a free. All but a handful could be on the chopping block if the new manager doesn’t fancy them, really. Same for incomings: We’ll have to see what Poch...err...the next manager (whoever he is) makes of this lot.

How does United line up on Sunday?

De Gea; Young, Lindelöf, Jones, Shaw; Matić, Herrera, Pogba; Lingard, Rashford, Martial.

How about a prediction?

2-2 Draw.

As always, we’d like to thank Brent for taking time out to answer some questions. Feel free to drop in on The Busby Babe to read up more on how things are going in the red side of Manchester.