Tomorrow sees Wenger head to Old Trafford for the last time. In advance of that, we chatted with Brent Maximin of SBN’s Manchester United blog The Busby Babe to get the story of Manchester United and how they’re doing. We ran out of time for a reciprocal Q&A, but I’ll do one with them next time...anyway, here are my questions and Brent’s answers.
TSF: With four games left in the season, United have already bettered last season’s 69 point total. Given that City put the league in its rear view in about October, does that feel like a successful Premier League season, or is there a feeling that City could have been challenged a bit more than they were?
TBB: It has definitely been a season of progress, and if second place and the FA Cup can be secured, it’ll be a decent ending. Fair play to City - they’ve been excellent, and United probably weren’t catching them in the league this year. We should have run them much closer though, and the most frustrating part has been the inconsistency. To beat City, Liverpool, and Chelsea all in the league and then lose to that rancid West Brom team pretty much summed up the “two steps forward, one step back” theme of the season for us.
TSF: Over to Europe now. Does getting knocked out by Sevilla in the CL Round of 16 feel about right, or does it seem like they should have gone further?
TBB: Biggest disappointment of the season, even moreso than finishing so far behind City in the league. Sevilla are a good side, but they’re no world beaters. Mourinho got his tactics wrong in the first leg, and set up the side far too conservatively. I don’t think most United fans would have expected us to seriously challenge to win the thing, but the meek manner of the exit was particularly grating. Especially seeing how flawed some of the other quarterfinalists were, I would have fancied our chances of going to the semis had we gotten some luck in the draw. To add insult to injury, we’re now getting dangerously close to the unthinkable: them winning the Champions League.
TSF: There’s not much left to play for in the league - with guaranteed CL spots for England’s top four, there’s no functional difference between finishing second and third. How does United motivate itself the rest of the way?
TBB: Mourinho has reiterated in recent weeks the importance of not slipping out of second and finishing with as high a points total as possible. That’s fine in theory of course, but in reality “get to 86 points” is not much motivation for the players. Fortunately, the squad is fully fit for maybe the first time this season, and there are several players who will want to prove that they should either start or at least make the matchday squad for the FA Cup final. There are probably 4 or so spots in the team still up for grabs, so I’d expect that quite a few players will be using the last few league games to put themselves in the manager’s thinking. Perversely, Mourinho’s penchant for turning on his players may also keep the players on their toes as well. For some players on the fringe, they could well be playing for their United futures in these last few games.
TSF: There has rarely been a more polarizing Arsenal star than Alexis Sanchez. A lot of Arsenal fans loved watching him play, but didn’t feel his baggage was worth keeping him around for and aren’t sorry he’s gone. How has he settled in at Old Trafford?
TBB: Recently, he’s started to look more settled in the team. I’d say he’s been consistently inconsistent - every appearance, he’s shown at least flashes of his ability, but he hasn’t able to really fit into the team. He’s spent much of his time at United looking a little lost: it’s taken time to build any understanding with new teammates, and him and Pogba in particular have tended to get in each other’s way. It doesn’t help that Mourinho doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time on attacking on the training pitch. But Sanchez is getting there though, and the semi-final was his best performance to date. I think we’ll see the best of him next season.
TSF: What has been the biggest reason for this season’s improvement over last season?
TBB: A number of things. The midfield has gone up a level with Matic, and as good as Ibrahimovic was, Lukaku’s mobility has changed the dynamic of the attack as well. As disjointed as the team has looked at times, it’s easy to forget just how mediocre United were at times last season. Another full season under Mourinho has helped erased some more of the bad habits of the dreadful van Gaal era as well.
TSF: As you may have heard, Arsenal are getting a new boss next season, after two-plus decades. Any words of advice for how to weather the transition? Do you have a heavy blanket we could borrow so we can feel safe and warm until it’s OK to come out again?
TBB: Oh god. Just thinking about the Moyes year is triggering my PTSD. I’ll say this: don’t underestimate the effect of losing such a massive figurehead. Wenger, like Ferguson, would have had a hand in the goings-on at the club at every level, and whoever the new manager is will essentially be doing a much more limited version of that job. There will be adjustment required throughout the club, and even though Wenger has long gone stale (as opposed to Fergie, who retired after winning the league), don’t expect that your new era is guaranteed to be a success. Getting that first post-Wenger appointment is key as well. Even now, five years after SAF retired, United are still playing catch up after hiring the wrong man (twice!) and allowing each to largely make a mess of the squad.
TSF: Score prediction for Sunday?
TBB: 2-0 United. The Wenger farewell tour of sadness continues.
Thanks to Brent and the Busby Babe for taking the time!