Manchester United Q&A with 'The Busby Babe', Part 1

Clive Mason

Real Madrid's tie against Manchester United is only a week away, so Managing Madrid and SB Nation's site about Manchester United, The Busby Babe, decided to make two Q&A posts regarding our very own teams. Gene Um took the time to answer our questions, and he will also be responding to some of your inquiries in this post. We deal about Van Persie, Kagawa, United's defense and more.

This is a very interesting read. The second part will come out next week. You can also drop by the comments section and leave some suggestions for us to ask The Busby Babe. Have a nice read!

Q: From the outside, it seems like Sir Alex doesn't trust Kagawa, Van Persie and Rooney in the same lineup. Did you expect this before the season started? I personally expected Kagawa to be a great signing. How are you seeing Kagawa s progress so far?

A: When the Shinji Kagawa signing occurred early in the past summer, many wondered if that would mean he would be the No.10 with Wayne Rooney pushing higher up the pitch in a No.9 role -- or more as a 'fasle 9' like he was in the 2009-10 season after Cristiano Ronaldo left. Rooney had an impressive goal tally last season but he was poor as a No.10 as his touch continually failed him, his decision-making left a lot to be desired, and he no longer seemed interested in helping out defensiveley. Then Robin van Persie was signed in August and the Premier League's best player was obviously going to be Manchester United's No.9.

The question then became how would Sir Alex get both Rooney and Kagawa into the same lineup. Well, at the beginning of the season, Rooney was out-of-shape (which he fully admitted) and he then became injured. Kagawa had the No.10 role to himself for awhile. The Japanese international, though, while clearly talented and more imaginative in that role than anybody else on the squad, struggled slightly. I think more than anything, it's because United didn't know how to use him as this was a sort of player Sir Alex has never had in his 26+ years at the club. He then became injured at about the same time Rooney returned from his injury.

Rooney played very well for a few months after his injury, particularly in big games such as the victory at Manchester City. He was showing signs of being the hungry No.10 that he was for the latter-half of the 2010-11 season -- a time when he was a genuinely world-class talent due to his range of passing, finishing, and industry in his defensive duties. He then became injured again and Kagawa returned about the same time. Sir Alex always seemed to have one available, but not both at the same time. This was until recently.

A congested fixture list obviously allows for rotation so both Rooney and Kagawa get the opportunity to play in their preferred No.10 roles. However, with United's wingers currently struggling, which is a major issue for Sir Alex's preferred wide 4-4-1-1/4-2-3-1 system, Kagawa has been tried on the left in a nominal wide role on the left -- something he does for Japan in their 4-2-3-1 system because Keisuke Honda is the national side's No.10. It's a small sample size, but in the few games where RvP has been the No.9, Rooney the No.10, and Kagawa on the left, it has generally worked out pretty well. There's a lot of fluidity in attack and Kagawa tends to drift inside anyway to create in the space between the lines. It'll be interesting though, to see what happens when a natural winger on the left (e.g. Ashley Young, Nani) find form -- I have no idea how Sir Alex will keep Kagawa happy in this situation if Rooney is in form as the No.10. Fortunately, our manager is man-management genius.

Q: Do you still see ManU as one of the title contenders in the Champions League after last season's disappointment?

A: Quite honestly, prior to the season, I didn't fancy our chances to lift the European Cup this season. I certainly expected to not repeat the embarrassing failure of not advancing out of the group-stages (assuming we didn't get a 'group-of-death' sort of draw like you guys did) but I didn't expect a run much deeper than the quarter-final or the semi-final at best. Despite the enormous talent and experience on the squad, the team simply has too many flaws. Taking back the Premier League title from Manchester City has been my main ambition as a supporter. I feel a bit better about the team now than I did in August, but with this draw with Madrid, I feel that we're slight underdogs in this tie.

We haven't been properly tested on the continent since the 2011 UCL final against Barcelona. Therefore, I feel it's tough to gauge where United stand at the moment relative to sides like Barca, Madrid, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Juventus -- or maybe even Paris Saint-Germain with their addition of Lucas Moura. I'm in the camp that the Premier League's elite sides have fallen relative to their continental counterparts. Wins at City, Chelsea, and Liverpool certainly show that United can win home and away against England's best sides -- and varying tactics used by Sir Alex in those matches is encouraging as well since he's willing to take a practical approach when he deems it necessary -- but I'm not convinced we're true contenders in Europe at the moment. Obviously, if we can defeat Madrid, my opinion changes.

However, I've spent some time watching Madrid games in recent weeks -- specifically el clasicos, the recent La Liga match at Valencia, and Champions League ties with City and Dortmund -- and at their best, Jose Mourinho's side terrifies me with their tenacious pressing and incredible speed at which they break. I can see this completely overwhelming United.

Q: Carrick has always been one of my favorite Premier League players. He's arguably having the best season in his career, and that's certainly helping a midfield a little bit short of defensive presence. How do you think United s midfield will look like against Real Madrid?

A: As fond as I am of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley -- and I guess we can throw Rooney in there as well when he drops into midfield -- the match-up against the likes of Sami Khedira, Xabi Alonso, and Mesut Ozil is worrying. If this is indeed the personnel battle at the Bernabeu, I hope to be pleasantly surprised. I have hunch, though, that Phil Jones may be deployed in midfield to provide inside cover against Ronnie and also to be a combative presence against Alonso and Khedira.

You would be correct in that Carrick is having a fine season. In fact, Sir Alex recently declared that the midfield maestro is having his best season in a United shirt. Carrick isn't a perfect player and he isn't in the class of a Andrea Pirlo, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, nor Xabi Alonso. He is, though, very undervalued (especially in England) and he's probably a step below the great players I just mentioned. His passing range and vision is very good, his positional awareness is tremendous, and his ability to read a game and adjust tempo when necessary is criminally underrated (again, especially so in England). I have a feeling that Carrick would be much more appreciated in a place like Spain. He's prone to being overrun though, especially when pressed, but I think some of that fault is because United no longer have a proper screener like Darren Fletcher providing protection for the passers in our midfield.

Q: Give us a thought on your teams defense against such a quick and quality offensive line in Cristiano Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria. Will Ferdinand and Vidic be able to keep up with them? They are good physically but might be a little slow for Ronaldo, don't you think?

A: My thoughts? I'm scared. All United fans know what Ronnie is capable of (that man gave us so much joy) and most are aware of how good Ozil and di Maria are.

The old guard -- Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand -- were once the best duo in world football. They've both declined -- in Vidic's case, this has to due more with serious injury rather than age so much -- but both have been very, very solid as of late. Their effectiveness against Madrid will depend on Sir Alex's approach. If United decide to press high up the pitch at any point in this tie, then Rio and Vidic will be worryingly exposed in space on any Madrid counterattack. This scares me because I don't know if I've ever seen a team more lethal on the break than the Meringues. If United decide to sit deep and look to attack when counterattack opportunities present themselves, then I think Rio and Vidic can be capable defenders against Madrid. Rio's positioning and reading of the game is borderline genius and he's just so solid. Vidic is still world-class when defending in the penalty box.

I'm actually more worried defending in the wide areas. As good as Rafael has been this season, he's still prone to concentration lapses and now he's up against the world's best left-sided player in Cristiano Ronaldo. This is obviously a key match-up. di Maria might terrorize Patrice Evra too. I'm uncertain who our wide attackers will be but if Antonio Valencia is deployed on the right -- despite being incredibly out-of-form at the moment -- he'll at least be of major assistance defensively. You're right though, pace will be a major concern for the United backline.

One last thing, I actually wouldn't be shocked to see Jonny Evans at some point during this tie -- he seems well-suited to continental football as he's very much a modern-day central-defender.

Q: United's wings are very dangerous. But why is such a threat like Nani playing those little minutes?

A: Typically, United's wingers are very dangerous. Along with the central-attacker that operates in the space between the lines, the wide attackers have generally been the other key source of chances created during Sir Alex's long reign at Old Trafford. Think Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, etc.

At the moment though, our natural wingers are either woefully out of form or injured. Antonio Valencia, Nani, and Ashley Young are a very talented trio of wingers but the former two are in horrid form while the latter has been injured as of late (again). There's a decent chance none of them start at the Bernabeu as Sir Alex could elect to go with players like Kagawa, Rooney, Cleverley, or Danny Welbeck in nominal wide roles.

Nani's situation is slightly complicated. His contract expires in the summer of 2014 and United generally are very good about getting their business done well in advance in these circumstances -- whether that be through a new deal or through the sale of the player. Nani, supposedly, is asking for an absurd amount of money and United aren't budging. He's also been upset in the past because Valencia has been preferred to him at times in his preferred right-winger role. Because of all of this, Sir Alex limited Nani's minutes early in the season because he didn't want to become so dependent on a player who might not be part of United's future. In the game at Chelsea in October, it was quite telling when Sir Alex choose Young -- who jumped straight into the lineup after being injured for two months -- over Nani. The Portuguese's injuries this season haven't helped him either.

In the past few weeks though, Nani has gotten a run of games. He's still not at his best as his end product has been lacking, but his movement has been good and he's shown the willingness and ability to take on defenders again. It wouldn't be shocking to see him start at the Bernabeu, especially if plays well for Portugal on Wednesday or for United on Sunday against Everton. These next few months are likely to be hugely important for his United career.

Q: Rooney can play as an AM or ST. He's developed into that play making role quite a bit. Will he go against Khedira and Alonso or more against Ramos and Varane?

A: I'll keep this answer shorter because I talked about Rooney a bit in the opening question. RvP will be in the No.9 so he'll be the ones occupying Ramos and Varane. Rooney will either be in the No.10 role or out wide -- if it's the former role, then I imagine it'll be the double-pivot of Khedira or Alonso that will be his natural foils unless either Ramos or Varance decide to step out of the back to mark Rooney. The Englishman, though, is very crafty in finding space so he'll likely wander in the gaps between the lines. If Madrid don't keep their shape compact in the back, Rooney is capable of having plenty of joy in these circumstances.

Give us our thoughts! And thank Gene for his time!

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