We had a great conversation with Gene from The Busby Babe, who spoke frankly about what's been going on with Manchester United. He had some pointed questions about Everton's season too, do go over their fantastic site and check out my replies.
RBM - It does feel like this season's side hasn't really made their mark on the League and is still trying to find their identity. Will this be the weakest United team to win the Premier League title in living memory?
TBB - I wouldn't disagree with you on the first part of the question. United are obviously a very good team, but they are a flawed one as well. In my opinion, Sir Alex Ferguson's last great team was from about 2006-09ish -- and yes, the end of that is when Cristiano Ronaldo departed for Real Madrid.
This current team, though, is better than last season's side and it probably has more upside than the 2010-11 title-winners and UEFA Champions League finalists. Nonetheless, as I already mentioned, it's a side with obvious and not so obvious vulnerabilities. In addition, by no means do we think this current title-race is over -- losing the title last season to a rival after having an eight-point lead with six fixtures to go has a way of humbling you.
The obvious flaws are the lack of physical presence in midfield -- a healthy Darren Fletcher was invaluable in screening for our technical midfielders -- and proneness to mistakes in the back (I'll cover more of these topics in the next two questions).
The (perhaps) not so obvious flaws have been a lack of consistency from our two biggest creative sources -- the central-playmaker that plays underneath Robin van Persie and our wingers. I'm not too worried about the former because injuries and adjustment to a new club have hindered the likes of Wayne Rooney and Shinji Kagawa this season. Both, though, are tremendous players are rounding into form as the run-in nears. The horrendous current form of Antonio Valencia and Nani out wide is much more concerning and the situation isn't helped by Ashley Young's continual injuries. Quite simply, our season could fall apart in Europe (very soon) and domestically if at least one of them don't provide us genuine width in attack. Ferguson's sides have always been heavily dependent on flying wingers.
Overall, I'm very happy with our points haul in the league but I think part of our success thus far is due to a Premier League that has been in decline in the past few years. The glass-half-full perspective is that we don't feel we've hit our peak and there's a curiosity to see just how good we can be if everything clicks -- if.
RBM - Defence wins championships. Is this going to be the year that the theory is going to be disproved? What's going on with United's defence? Has Nemanja Vidic's return stabilized the back four?
TBB - David de Gea is a world-class shot-stopper but while the media has been ridiculous in their criticism of him, he certainly has been at fault for some soft goals and he needs to command his box better. He's improving, though, and I personally rate him. I wholeheartedly believe he will be a world-class goalkeeper within a few years -- I just hope it's at Old Trafford...
In the back four, it's been musical chairs with our central-defenders for a few seasons due to fitness issues but we're generally more solid when at least one of the old guard -- Rio Ferdinand or Nemanja Vidic -- is back there. I think the constant changing, though, has factored in a lack of cohesion at times. Our best of run of defensive form in the past calendar year occurred when Rio and Jonny Evans had gotten a lengthy run together.
In the past few weeks, Vidic has provided us a few dominant defensive performances. However, I still don't feel he's back to his former world-class self -- we haven't seen this since prior to his brutal knee injuries that began in December 2011. He and Rio have partnered a few times recently and they did generally boss those matches. They will never, though, be world football's best defensive duo again and they are now vulnerable defending in space. It's nerve-wracking when our attackers press and they have to play higher up the pitch.
Our team shape is an important issue. When we're on the front foot, there's often too much space in front of our back four or in behind -- this is dependent on how comfortable that day's personnel is with playing a higher or deeper line. When this occurs, this is when you see those crazy games where we concede an early goal and then storm back into the lead -- while still conceding chances. In 'big game's though, Ferguson is willing to be more pragmatic. He'll instruct United to keep a compact shape that includes two banks of four with either Rooney and Kagawa trying to block passing lanes into midfield. We'll then look to counter on the flanks. I have a feeling we'll see something like this at Real Madrid next week.
RBM - Ageless wonders Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes still feature for the Red Devils in the middle of the park. Do they have any true heirs to bequeath their legacy to when they do finally retire, for good?
TBB - Quite simply, there is no replacing legends like Giggs and Scholes. In general, Ferguson has done well to keep them around to provide leadership and presence so that the ethos of Ferguson's Manchester United can be passed down. The gaffer has also done well to phase them out (that perhaps sounds harsh but I'm guessing those reading this will get my gist).
Both Giggs and Scholes have been tremendous servants -- the latter is the footballer I'm personally most fond of -- but fortunately, United are no longer reliant on either. Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley, and Anderson have all been solid enough this season that they're chosen first when available. Scholes, though, can still dictate a match on his day and he's done well to come on late in games to either keep possession to see a game out or increase tempo with his range of passing when a goal is needed. Giggs has actually been spectacular in the past month -- particularly in FA Cup ties -- as his craft and guile have served him sell. It's been a joy for United fans because we know time is running out on those two.
The future out wide is Valencia, Young, Nani (if he's not sold in the summer), and Wilfried Zaha so there's no reliance on Giggs there. Carrick, Ando, and Cleverley are the now in central-midfield while the latter and Nick Powell are part of the future. Undoubtedly though, United will need to buy a midfielder or two in the upcoming transfer windows. A tempo-setting heir to Carrick and Scholes is needed at some point (Luka Modric would have been lovely) as is a physical presence (Celtic's Victor Wanyama is increasingly being linked to United and scouts are now watching him nearly every week).
RBM - Robin van Persie is easily one of the best signings of the season, worth every pound of his hefty contract. What has been his impact on the other strikers, especially Javier Hernandez and Danny Welbeck?
TBB - As you said, RvP has been worth every pound -- and then some. Even if he provides just 75% of what he's doing now (not that there's an exact way to quantify his impact) for the remainder of his contract, he'll still have proven to be good business. Wayne Rooney's form fluctuates too often for us to be reliant on him so it's nice having a consistent and steady world-class talent come through nearly every week. He's given this club a needed boost and because of him, I think this team's ceiling is at it's highest since Ronnie left for Spain.
RvP's arrival hasn't impacted Chicharito too much. The goalscoring rate of the Mexican international is about on par with his tremendous debut season at United and it's much better than last season. With our continual congested fixture list, he's still getting plenty of games as well -- even if he probably deserves more. He's also a fantastic option off the bench in big games. To his credit, he's also improved since his arrival in England and while his game is still based on clever movement and finishing in the box, his all-around game is no longer as lacking as it was in 2010.
Welbeck's development has probably been hindered though. He's coming off his first full season at United as his all-around game and his partnership with Rooney impressed, even if his finishing left a bit to be desired at times. This season, he's been shunted out wide pretty often. His movement and pace into the channels has been a threat, and his willingness to track back and defend is appreciated, but his end product and decision-making from out wide is disappointing. It's easy to get frustrated with Welbeck but at the same time, most understand that he's being asked to play out of position because of RvP, Rooney, Chicha, and even Kagawa. This perhaps, has been the only drawback to RvP's arrival.
RBM - Speaking of signings, did United bolster the squad over the January transfer window? Did any players exit the side?
TBB - As anticipated, United were quiet during the most recent transfer window. This was down to two simple reasons: (1) Ferguson has continually stated he feels that he has a deep and balanced squad this season and (2) the club rarely does deals at this time of the year because of what they perceive to be a lack of value and the worry about implementing a new player into the mid-season pressure-cooker of title-races and European fixtures.
Youngsters Robbie Brady and Joshua King were sold to Hull City and Blackburn Rovers, respectively. A deal was made for Crystal Palace's Wilfried Zaha but the 20-year-old won't arrive until the summer as he's been loaned back to the Championship side for the remainder of their season. A plethora of other players went out on loan -- perhaps the most notable being Angelo Henriquez to Wigan Athletic and Federico Macheda to VfB Stuttgart.
RBM - The Champions League is forthcoming, with a tasty fixture away to Jose Mourinho's crisis-riddled Real Madrid side. How far do you see United going in the CL, and who should they be very afraid of?
TBB - The Old Trafford faithful will be delighted to see the return of one of their favourite sons in Cristiano Ronaldo. They'll also be terrified of him because we know as well as almost anybody what that man is capable of. Then there's also the likes of Angel di Maria, Mesut Ozil, Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema in attack to wreak havoc while their midfielders Xabi Alonso, Sami Khedira, and Luka Modric could potentially overwhelm ours.
I never fancied United's chances to lift the European Cup this season. As mentioned earlier, they simply have too many flaws and I think they're a step below the likes of Barcelona, Madrid, Bayern Munich, and even Borussia Dortmund. With that said, it shouldn't be surprising that I see United as underdogs in this tie.
As you imply, Madrid are not at their peak. On their day though, they are devastating. I just hope we don't see that Madrid side. I wouldn't be shocked if we somehow won that tie nor would I be surprised if the Spanish giants won relatively easy. If they're not sharp, we are capable of making them pay.
RBM - Looking at Sunday's game, will Sir Alex Ferguson be thinking ahead to Wednesday's clash against Real when making his team selection? How about a score prediction, and who are you expecting to shine from the two sides?
TBB - I think Ferguson might. With a nine-point lead in league, the gaffer will likely ponder quite a bit which team and tactics can be selected to give United their best chance at a 0-0, 1-1, 2-2, 0-1, 1-2 type of result at the Bernabeu. Management of fitness is obviously important so he'll be assessing how many minutes his key players played this midweek during internationals (damn you Roy Hodgson for making Rooney go the full 90 minutes against Brazil) and how much they can potentially play versus Everton if they are to be available against Madrid.
I hope, though, United won't be stupid enough to overlook the Toffees when one considers how much joy your team has had against us in our past two meetings. We'll need to deploy a near full-strength and play well if we are to avenge last season's 4-4 result at Old Trafford. If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm more pessimistic than the typical United fan. I'll go with a 2-2 prediction if Fellaini plays [goals from RvP, Rooney, Fellaini (2)] and a 2-1 United win if the big haired Belgian doesn't.