Manchester United Q&A With 'The Busby Babe', Part 3

Michael Regan

We take a final look at Manchester United thanks to Gene Um. Managing Madrid has also answered Gene's questions about Real Madrid at their own blog, 'The Busby Babe'.

Thanks to 'The Busby Babe' and Gene Um for doing this kind of piece to preview the clash between the world's two greatest clubs. Head to their site to see what I had to say about our team. Here's our last interview with them:

Q: I have to ask you this. Real Madrid seemed to be in control throughout the whole second half of the first leg played at the Bernabéu. But the goal never came. There have been lots of questions about how United will play at the Old Trafford. Do you think Sir Alex will be willing to give Real Madrid the ball like in the second half of the mentioned game knowing that Real Madrid only needs one goal?

A: I actually thought United were better in the second-half than they were in the first. When Danny Welbeck scored his goal, it was against the run of play. In addition, immediately after that goal was scored, Wayne Rooney -- surprisingly deployed in a right-sided attacking role -- raced to the touchline and signaled with his arms stretched out wide to the coaching staff that he and Rafael -- the right-back -- weren't compact enough. The Brazilian was seen screaming at Rooney too because when Fabio Coentrao was getting forward, the Englishman wasn't helping enough. There seemed to be a lack of understanding. I think Ferguson expected to soak up some pressure, but as he admitted after the game, his side was pushed back too far for his liking.

Things improved in the second-half when Welbeck was moved into a more central role so that he could harass Xabi Alonso. This helped break up some of Madrid's passing in the deep areas and when the ball was won, Welbeck either surged past Alonso or he targeted the space in behind Alvaro Arbeola because he knew he could beat him in any footrace.

I do think Ferguson will be willing to give the ball to Madrid, even at Old Trafford. He just had this to say this week after your impressive Copa del Rey defeat of Barcelona:

"I thought Real Madrid were magnificent I really did. But we knew that Madrid are one of the best counter-attacking teams in Europe, there is no question about that. That is what we will be up against on Tuesday and that is what our preparations are centering around."

I don't think the gaffer expects a 0-0 scoreline but if I had to guess, he'll be cautious from the start and he obviously doesn't want a 2-2 or a 3-3 sort of scoreline. I think he also wants to deny the space for Madrid to counterattack into so I think he'll be looking to absorb pressure and then have his own side counterattack -- albeit, United don't want to under siege like they were at the Bernabeu at times.

Q: It's known that Real Madrid isn't a good team when the opposition's defense is set, but the same goes for every other team in the world. It's easier to counterattack, even Barcelona and Arsenal take profit from their chances in this kind of situations. Is Manchester United a counterattacking team? I personally think that United's secret is that they can excel at many different styles of playing, more than other thing. But if you could put it down to one main strenghth, what's United's secret?

A: One of the biggest strengths of Sir Alex Ferguson is his ability to adapt. He makes mistakes like anyone else but he also learns from them. This has been a clear reason why he's had so much continual success during his 26+ year reign at United.

United can play in many different ways -- they can play a patient passing game, they can be direct when needed, they can play high up the pitch and press while looking for quick transitions, and they can soak up pressure and then counterattack into space when the ball is won. Ferguson's last great team -- the 2006-09 side built around Cristiano Ronaldo -- could do all of this. I'd say being able to adapt to circumstances and opponents is probably one of United's biggest strengths.

This current team is similarly adaptable, even if they probably aren't as good as the 2006-09 sides. On Saturday, United had 65% of the possession or so against mid-table Norwich City and they clinically broke them down for a 4-0 win. Against Madrid, my guess is that we'll only have about 40-45% of the ball and the territory battle will be deeper from our perspective. With either method, United is capable of having success.

Q: What's the situation with United's wingers almost a month after the first leg? You told me in our first Q&A that they were struggling while getting back to shape. Are they ready now?

A: It's not ideal, but it's better. Nani's form has improved as of late so he's certainly possible to start on Tuesday. At the moment, he seems equally capable of being spectacular or having a shocker. Antonio Valencia is still nowhere near his best but he's shown signs of improvement lately as well. The Ecuadorian's defensive abilities as a right-winger puts him in contention to start. Ferguson usually has a surprise or two with his selection choices but I don't anticipate Rooney on the right again.

On the left, the gaffer could go in a number of directions. He could go with a more traditional winger like Ashley Young because he's good on the counter and he's responsible defensively. Nani is possible on this flank as well. Ferguson could also put a natural central player -- such as Welbeck, Rooney, or Shinji Kagawa -- in a nominal left-sided role or Ryan Giggs out there in a tucked in role because United aren't worried about Arbeola's attacking ability. Personally, I'd like to see Welbeck out there again because Arbeola struggled against him in space.

Q: Ferguson surprised almost everybody by deploying quite an offensive lineup at the Bernabéu, with Kagawa, Van Persie, Rooney and Welbeck at the same time. But the team never lost its composure and when they needed to defend, they succeeded. Do you think Fergie will be as brave at the Old Trafford? Was he only trying to score a valuable away goal in the Bernabéu?

A: I must admit, I was both terrified and excited when I saw that team news come out prior to kick-off at the Bernabeu. I think, though, Ferguson made these choices because he was worried about the form of our wingers at the time and the versatility and work-rate of Welbeck and Rooney allowed them to be used in nominal wide roles. And ultimately, the tactics were actually defensive. Nonetheless, that was classic Ferguson surprising everybody again with his selection choices.

I think Welbeck is definitely in contention for a role on the left because of the reasons I've already mentioned in this interview. Rooney, as I also discussed, was a disaster on the right and with Nani and Valencia improved in recent weeks, I suspect one of the two natural wingers will be chosen.

Robin van Persie might be the only guaranteed starter at this point in the front four (or three if Ferguson goes 4-3-3). Rooney is very likely as well. All of Nani, Valencia, Welbeck, Young, Giggs, and Kagawa are in contention for the two other spots. As to which of these players will be picked, your guess might be as good as mine.

Q: Phil Jones completely destroyed us in the first leg. He is an amazing player. Do you think he'll play in the same position and role, or will his versatility move him to another spot?

A: Yeah, Jones has been superb in the past few months against Ronnie, Gareth Bale, and Marouane Fellaini. The 20-year-old is fearless, versatile, and has a motor. Unfortunately, it looks as if he may be out for this tie. Tactically, that could be an enormous loss for United.

If he were to feature on Tuesday, it would be in the same 'inside cover' role from central-midfield. He would basically be asked to shackle Cristiano again whenever he leaves the left flank. United have no sort of like-for-like replacement for this combative role that Jones can play.

Rafael may be given less assistance this time around against Ronnie -- this possibility is terrifying. I think if Jones was fit and available to play this 'inside cover' role, Nani would be more probable to start as the right-winger. If United go with a double-pivot of Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley (or possibly Anderson or Giggs instead of Cleverley), Valencia might come into the side because of his defensive abilities as a winger. He could be asked to stay compact with Rafael. This is despite the Ecuadorian not providing the same sort of attacking threat as Nani at the moment.

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