Here we have the second edition of our Q&A with Gene Um, lead editor for The Busby Babe. Gene has been tremendously friendly with us and will take the time to answer your questions in this post. Remember to drop by The Busby Babe to see what I had to say about Real Madrid in their second edition of the Q&A with Managing Madrid.
Q: Watching United play against Everton at home, we saw David Moyes' team having most of the possession. It's not that we care about that stat as much as other teams do (insert Arsenal and Barcelona's name here), but it's quite surprising. Do you think United will play defensively against Madrid and then try to counterattack with Rooney, RVP and Valencia?
A: By the end of the match, the possession had essentially evened out. Early on though, Everton had more of the ball but I think that can be explained by a few things: (1) Michael Carrick didn't start (and Paul Scholes is out too) and he's the tempo-setter for this team. He missed England duty at the past midweek due to a supposed niggle and he was likely being rested in the league tie ahead of the trip to the Bernabeu. (2) His replacement -- Phil Jones -- was brought in to nullify a nuisance of ours in recent years -- the influential Marouane Fellaini. The 20-year-old is a tremendous talent but he was brought in a for a physical battle and not to keep possession. He did his job extraordinarily well as the big-haired Belgian was in his pocket. The downside, though, to Jones in midfield is that you lose some fluidity with your passing game.
Sir Alex Ferguson's tactics and selections choices are so difficult to predict that attempting to do so is often a futile exercise. I do think, though, that United will be cautious at the Bernabeu. We've played well on the counter this season when needed so it wouldn't surprise me to see the gaffer instruct his side to keep the shape compact -- squeeze the space between the lines and channels for the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, and Angel di Maria -- and then look to quickly break forward when possession is won -- especially out wide to the flanks. The three players you mention -- Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, and Antonio Valencia -- are all tremendous on the counter while the likes of Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez, and Nani are dangerous as well. All of these players have decent pace at the least -- some have searing pace -- while all have good appreciation of space as well.
If I had to guess, I'd anticipate that United will be set up to play on the counter. They could vary things by selectively pressing in certain stages in the match but in general, this is what I expect. Sir Alex should understand, as well, that denying space for Madrid to break into themselves is paramount in this tie. I think it's more important to keep the team shape solid than it is to have the ball.
Q: Phil Jones, Ryan Giggs and Evans started against Everton. Do you think they have a chance of starting against Real Madrid? It'd surprise me to see Evans, although you said in the earlier Q&A that it wouldn't shock you to see him play. Do you think Fergie has in mind starting a third midfield to play alongside Cleverley and Carrick in a 4-3-3? Maybe that'd be Jones' spot?
A: I think there could be some surprises when the team news comes out on Wednesday.
Jonny Evans is probably going to start alongside Rio Ferdinand. Nemanja Vidic was tremendous against Everton -- the skipper is showing signs of returning to his pre-knee injury world-class form as of late -- but his doctors are being extremely cautious with him and it's unlikely that he'll start two games in four days. Evans has been very solid since the 2011/12 season and even though I don't feel the same confidence with him as I do with a fit Vidic or Ferdinand, I do trust him. I think for this particular tie, he's a good option (I hope I don't regret this statement at a later time). His mobility against Madrid's quick attackers will hopefully be useful and his impressive range of passing -- with both feet -- could be important in launching counterattacks.
I doubt Giggs starts but he could make an appearance as a substitute -- either to inject some creativity late in the game if we need service for the strikers or to come on and calm things down if United are level or happen to have the lead. The 39-year-old legend is actually in really good form right now.
Jones could definitely start, and if he's deemed fit, I anticipate that he will. He did, though, pick up a slight knock it seemed against Everton and he had to be substituted off early in the 2nd-half. It wasn't quite clear if this was to preserve him for the trip to Spain or if was a genuine injury concern. However, he plays with so much tenacity that it always seems like he's come out of a war. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that when he was born, that he limped out of his mother's womb... and then tackled something.
The role I could envision for him is an inside right one in midfield -- or to be more general, the right-sided player of a double-pivot. He played this role against Fellaini and marked him out of the game on Sunday. More relevant to this tie perhaps, is that Jones played in this same position recently against Tottenham Hotspur. In that match though, he was inside cover against Gareth Bale as he and Rafael essentially bracketed the Welshman -- and to great effect. I could see a similar tactic being used against Ronaldo. Ronnie though, despite Bale being a tremendous player, is on another level...
Q: Which one of your players do you trust more for this upcoming tie? Should we worry more about Rooney or RVP?
A: Robin van Persie.
He hasn't been as clinical in the past few matches (we freak out, though, if he goes one game without a goal) but he's so lethal with his finishing and his movement always serves a purpose. Just a brilliant, brilliant player that is at the peak of his career. RvP could get just two half-chances at the Bernabeu but turn them both into goals.
Rooney, though, could be more important tactically. If he plays in behind RvP in a No.10 sort of role, I think it'll be important that he close Xabi Alonso and limit him the best he can. Whoever is in the double-pivot -- whether that be Carrick, Jones, Cleverley, or Anderson -- will be busy staying compact and dealing with Ronaldo/di Maria cutting inside, Ozil, and Sami Khedira's driving runs forward.
Q: De Gea has been struggling quite a bit since he signed for you in the summer of 2011. Premier League's physical play might be bothering him off set-pieces, but he certainly has good potential. Do you think Fergie is happy with him? Could he be going somewhere else this next summer?
A: The media in the U.K. has been ridiculous in their coverage of de Gea. He certainly needs to improve in commanding his box and dealing with crosses, but he hasn't been as bad as the narrative portrays. (Most) United fans find it annoying how little they covered him last season when he was the Premier League's best goalkeeper last season from January through May. He's an incredible shot-stopper -- I honestly don't know if there's one better in the world right now -- and even though he gets some recognition for this, it's not nearly enough. To be quite frank, it makes my blood boil the way he's been treated.
There actually can be a little frustration with Sir Alex as well with the way he's handled him at times. Out of nowhere, for the smallest of mistakes, de Gea has been dropped from time to time. This can't help with his confidence. I think these final months of the season are important for the Spaniard. If he performs consistently well, he won't go anywhere. If he struggles at times and the media keeps blaming him, and if Barcelona come calling, it wouldn't be shocking to see him sold. I whole-heartedly believe that he'll soon be a world-class goalkeeper within a few years -- I just hope it's at Manchester United.
Q: Is there a chance of seeing Smalling play in the right back to take care of Cristiano Ronaldo? He played there a lot some seasons ago, didn't he? What's your take on Smalling's performances in that position?
A: I like Chris Smalling, but I will cry if he's selected at right-back and then I'll likely crawl into a ball into a corner of a room out of fear. His future is as a central-defender. It most likely will be Rafael at right-back. The Brazilian is having a tremendous season and in my opinion, he's now better than the Brazilian right-back at Barcelona. He's tenacious in tackle, fearless, and he can make Ronaldo pay if he gets too lazy defensively. He's a threat going forward. The downside, though, even if he has improved in this regard, is that he can caught out too high at times. Quite obviously, he can't do that against your talisman.
I actually rate Jones over Smalling at right-back. The latter has featured there at times, particularly when Rafael has been injured, but he's just cover there. Smalling has decent mobility for a central-defender but he's not quick enough to play full-back against top level competition. Jones has better mobility for the position and he can cross the ball better too.
Q: Mourinho rested Khedira, Özil, Alonso and Di María in Real's game against Sevilla. Ferguson, on the other hand, decided to keep his key men on the pitch. Do you think that could be an important factor? Both teams like to run with the ball and physical play could be huge in this first game, agree?
A: Sir Alex essentially admitted after the Everton game that he smelled blood after Manchester City lost on Saturday and that the chance to go 12 points clear was too important to pass up. The gaffer saw an opportunity to put a foot on the throat of the 'noisy neighbours' and that's what United did. I think it bothered him A LOT to lose the title to them last season.
Carrick was rested at least. I wish RvP could have come off at around the hour-mark against Everton but it's probably not a huge deal. I don't worry about Patrice Evra, Jonny Evans, Rafael, nor Wayne Rooney potentially starting twice in four days. The latter, actually, needs consistent games to stay fit so playing a lot in recent games is a good thing.
I find myself wondering about Valencia and Cleverley though. I'm not certain that they're in the plans to start on Wednesday. It wouldn't surprise me to see Nani on the right instead and Anderson in the middle. The latter's drive and ability to pick out a pass in the attacking third could be useful in carrying the ball forward during counterattacks -- whether this is from a double-pivot role or possibly as a deeper No.10 type ahead of Carrick and Jones (or Cleverley). Ando's energy could be useful in harassing Alonso too-- well, until he gets hungry by the 60th minute or so and then asks to come off so he can get a snack.
Thanks a lot for your time, Gene. I wish you and your team the best for the season, but hoping that Real Madrid goes through!