As you might have seen down below, I did a Q&A with SB Nation's Manchester United blog The Busby Babe that was posted this morning. Gene Um, the TBB writer whose questions I answered, was kind enough to answer some questions of my own ahead of Aston Villa's clash with United tomorrow.
Q: In the context of Manchester United, this seems like something of a transitional season; that sounds funny to say seeing as how they're (conservatively) one of the ten best teams in the world, second in the table and more than capable of beating any team in the Premier League at any venue on any day, but it still seems to be the perception. Would you agree with that assessment, or do you think their struggles (for lack of a better term) have been overblown?
From my own personal perspective, I think there's an element of truth to that. The 2007-08 United side that conquered both Europe and England was a great one and they tactically matched up well with any side in the world. Against the top sides, Sir Alex Ferguson fielded a 4-3-3 (4-2-1-3 more specifically) that was sound in their defensive shape. When United won the ball, the likes of Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick acted as deep-lying playmakers that ignited a lethal counter attack for forwards like Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and Carlos Tevez. That was truly a great side.
Despite appearing in 2 Champions League finals since (and convincingly being beaten by Barcelona in both encounters), I would argue that United have been a very good side but certainly less convincing. Whether the current state is transitional or simply a drop off in quality is up for debate. SAF's influx of youth in recent transfer windows indicates his desire to build one last great team (or it indicates financial constraints due to the controversial owners).
This probably sounds like a cliche but I do think the culture of winning has allowed the club to persevere in recent seasons when adversity has struck. Trophies are expected on a yearly basis so maybe transition isn't quite the word to describe the current state of the club... but they certainly are in search of a defining identity. As you stated, they are capable of competing with any side in England right now but some sort of change or breakthrough is needed in order for them to become more convincing. I realize that is incredibly vague but I don't know what the answer is to recent struggles. Whether its personnel or tactics -- or both -- I'm not quite sure. If someone like me did know, I'm sure as hell SAF would too.
Q: Despite his propensity to frustrate us at times, Ashley Young still has a special place in the heart of many Villa fans as we watched him grow from promising youngster into the player he is today. How has he fared with United so far, and do you see him being an important player for the club well into the future?
Ashley Young was off to a fantastic start in his United career and he was arguably their best player in August. His understanding with Wayne Rooney is tremendous and this aided an attack that was incredibly fast and fluid at the season's beginning. During the late summer and early Autumn, Young was an automatic choice on the left flank and his pace, distribution, and finishing were vital to United's blistering start. However, he picked up a toe injury (in October I think?) and he has only recently recovered from it. In his two matches since his return, he has failed to show the form of his early season -- his final product has particularly been lacking.
Competition for first-choice is always fierce -- especially when considering that Young, Nani, Park Ji-sung, and Antonio Valencia all offer something uniquely different on the flanks -- but Young will certainly be an important player for United going forward. The sheer number of matches United play each season requires the squad to be rotated and nearly everyone gets the opportunity to play in 'big matches.' Under SAF, United has a history of requiring creativity from their wingers so Young certainly fits that mold. In addition, as Villa fans are fully aware, his versatility allows him to deputise for Rooney in the role withdrawn from a striker. For the current season, Young will likely be first-choice on the left flank for the run-in if he rediscovers his form from August and September unless some sort of tactical match-up requires the use of Park (SAF's tactical swiss-army knife).
Q: As something of a tactics geek, one of the more interesting stories to me last season was Wayne Rooney shaking off a pretty underwhelming start to the year and shifting into a somewhat different role, almost that of a trequartista. Is he still being used in that way, and more generally how important is his performance in the broader context of United's attacking approach?
I realize I sound like a total homer but in a certain way, I think Rooney is a bit underrated as a player. Yes, he receives plenty of praise for his quality (perhaps too much so) but not enough is said of his versatility and all-around skillset. He's excelled in the past as a wide forward, as a true center-forward, as a false-nine, as a borderline number ten as you just mentioned, and even in the central midfield this season in a box-to-box role. Because of this, there isn't another player in the Premier League that I'd take over Wazza.
The role that you mention is the one that I think he currently is best at. Last season, his partnership with Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) was one that helped spark United during their successful run-in. Chicharito stayed high on the shoulder of the last defender as his pace, intelligent movement, and deadly finishing made defenders wary of playing too high. In turn, this created acres of space underneath for Rooney to operate between the lines. From here, he became an incisive playmaker that created chances for both himself and others. When everyone is fit and in decent enough form at United, I think this is still the preferred role for Rooney at United. His tremendous work-rate also allows him to drop deep when United are out of possession and help prevent them from being overrun by opponents that use three central-midfielders.
It was somewhat interesting that at season's beginning, Rooney played a bit higher when he was partnered with Danny Welbeck up top. Both would come deep and in the space they vacated behind them, Young or Nani would often surge into it or central-midfielders Tom Cleverley and Anderson would come with late-arriving runs into that space. It was an incredibly fluid 4-4-2. However, Rooney's role vs Villa will likely resemble the one I just described in his partnership with Chicharito.
Q: Somewhat predictably, David de Gea was under a great deal of scrutiny early in the season and was widely criticized for a few costly errors. That's not surprising given the general mistrust for younger keepers (especially when coming from outside of the Premier League) but he's clearly got the talent to be a world-class player as he matures, if he's not already. What's your assessment of his performance so far this season.
To be quite honest, I feel that some of those mistakes were overblown. I really wish some of those who criticized him so easily during those times would come forward now and offer similar enthusiasm in praise for the job he's done in his debut season at the club. United certainly have ground out some results this season and de Gea's timely saves have been vital for picking up some of those difficult points. He's a tremendous shot-stopper and his distribution is on point. In addition, he appears to be a mentally tough kid. My only concern would be his command in the box when crosses are sent in. He's certainly improved as the season has wore on but he likely needs to bulk up -- this will probably naturally occur as well since he's only 21-years-old. Overall, I'm very pleased with de Gea thus far.
Q: This is a question that gets asked more and more as the years go along, and I'm sure it's annoying to United fans by now but I'm going to ask it anyways; how much longer do you see Sir Alex Ferguson staying in charge at United. I personally see no reason for him to leave at any point in the near future, but as someone that follows United as closely as you do I wonder if you might have some greater insight.
If I'm not mistaken, I believe the recent indications are that he will remain the manager at the club for at least 3 more seasons. He has continually said that he will remain at United as long as he still feels healthy and that he can still do the job at an elite level. SAF appears to be tremendously healthy for a 69-year-old man and I bet he could still handle himself (I wouldn't 'eff with him at least). He's certainly earned the right to leave whenever he wants. There are some whispers though that he was prepared to retire if United had defeated Barcelona last May (way to go Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, etc -- you prevented an old man from peacefully enjoying retirement).
He's continually stated in the past that his father dropped dead within a year of retirement -- it appears that this weighs heavily on his mind. Perhaps this job keeps him young. Whoever succeeds him has enormous shoes to fill (sorry for the most obvious statement of the day) and only a manager with an insane amount of self-confidence (Jose Mourinho?) will be even capable of attempting to do this. Good luck to whoever that guy is.
Q: For those that may not watch United as often as a fan such as yourself, are there any interesting changes to the tactical approach since last season that we should be aware of? Any younger players that have taken a step forward since last season? Any less well-publicized new faces we should be aware of tomorrow?
The fast and fluid 4-4-2 -- with more emphasis on quick one-touch passing in the attacking third with more interchanging movement -- hinted at a preference to mirror the 2007-08 side more. However, this left United a bit open behind their midfield (see: United 1-6 City). Since then, it's been a search for a tactical balance for a sound defensive structure coinciding with a faster and more fluid attack (compared to recent seasons). This has allowed for youngsters Welbeck and Cleverley to shine in their opportunities this season. Injuries have set them back in recent weeks.
You'll likely see familiar faces tomorrow. In case though you've been stranded on an island in the Pacific (Castaway style) in recent months, the kid Phil Jones is pretty damn good and exciting to watch. He's a fun, new, and shiny toy for SAF this season.