Ask the Opposition

Ask the Opposition 35: Manchester United

We’re only four games into the season and already the Manchester derby is upon us. It’s fair to say that Manchester City and Manchester United have a fierce rivalry, one that has been spiced up even more due to City’s emergence under Sheikh Mansour. With Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho now in charge of the Manchester clubs, this great fixture is even more exciting.

Ahead of Saturday’s Manchester derby we spoke to ESPN’s Alex Shaw about the enticing prospect of Pep vs Jose, and to get a gauge of a United fans’ train of thought ahead of what is likely to be the most-watched game this season.

First of all Alex, thanks for coming on! Saturday’s game is being billed as Pep v Jose rather than City v United. I understand the two managers have an active dislike of one another (putting it nicely). But do you think too much is being made of their rivalry, with people almost forgetting that there’s a game of football to be played?

Couldn’t agree more, although I am being hypocritical here as well because I’ve been guilty of a few “Mourinho vs. Pep” headlines on ESPN. I can understand why so many are doing it though. It’s box office stuff, two of the best managers in world football, former friends turned enemies, working on opposite sides of the city. It has a fantastic dramatic value to it, the like we haven’t really seen since Fergie v Wenger. But even then, United v Arsenal was more than the managers. Schmeichel v Wright, Keane v Vieira. I miss the hatred of United v Arsenal, really. That’s one of the side effects of Arsenal, and then later United, sliding away.

But yes, it isn’t Mourinho v Pep really, is it. It’s United v City and it’s more than the headline grabbers. It’s just the one thing that’s easy to latch on to because of how cinematic it is.

Let’s talk about United. What changes have you seen in them (apart from the signings) and what makes them different to the team that City faced last season?

Watching paint dry is no longer a tantalising option. Louis van Gaal’s United were, by and large, wretched to watch. It was odd, though, as he usually did well in the big games. There’s more attacking threat at the moment – yes, it was only Hull, but United had 29 shots against them. It’d take LVG three games to get that many. I wouldn’t say they’re a completely different prospect, though, as there’s still some cobwebs that need to be blown away. It’ll take time to move on fully, and United can still be a little pedestrian in midfield, but there’s the semblance of a plan in place.

Fans of other clubs usually hate United but from 2013-now ish, there was more mockery and mickey taking than hatred. Nobody, rightly, saw them as a threat. Now people are getting upset again because they broke the world transfer record and celebrating late winners.

That and lots of people hate the manager too. Moyes and LVG were almost comical to opposition fans.

Mourinho’s sides are often set up to be compact and solid, particularly in the bigger games. His full-backs don’t push forward as high, and he very much utilises the counter attack. Are you expecting a similar approach on Saturday, or do you believe that with it being a game of such magnitude so early on he’ll abandon his principles and go for the throat?

Mourinho? Abandon principles? Not a chance. This is what United have signed up for: a man who sticks to a plan for big games, wins stuff, causes trouble and then leaves. I imagine that’s how it’ll go. I remember he beat City 1-0 in February 2014 at the Etihad – he did a number on you that day. Chelsea were pretty crap that season and City were superior almost everywhere, but he strangled you and got the job done. Not saying he’ll do that again, but I think he’ll set up how everyone thinks he will.

If he doesn’t start Marcus Rashford, then ….

On to Manchester City now! Looking at the game from a City point of view, what is the Achilles heel in the Manchester United side that we should target?

Two areas:

1 – Midfield. Yes, Pogba is class and is a man to fear, but I still feel United’s midfield isn’t all that. There’s also the issue of where to play him. Schneiderlin has failed so far, I’m a fan of Carrick but not for this game and Herrera is busy but needs more alongside him.

2 – Full-backs. Shaw and Valencia have started fine, but both are doubts. Regardless, if they play, there’s been a few times when they’ve been exposed. Southampton at Old Trafford had a lot of joy but were crap up top so couldn’t take advantage.

What do you make of our start under Pep? I’m also curious to hear your thoughts on who you believe is our main threat in the absence of Aguero?

I watched some of the preseason games and was immediately struck by how you pressed so quickly, already. That’s carried on in the real thing too. You’ve probably played the best football in the league so far, but it’s early days. I said last season that we might as well give up and go home after you won the first five without conceding, and look how that panned out.

Still, it’s promising. Stoke are, I think, going to struggle this season but swatting them 4-1 was pretty impressive. You’ve looked a bit dodgy at home so far, which is probably just down to settling in, while I’m not looking at the Steaua game because by all accounts they were pathetic opposition.

So: good. No more, no less. Too early for all that so far I guess. But, like United, anything lower than second this season constitutes a pretty big failure in my view.

I’d say Silva and Sterling are the big threats. Your midfield is busy (if a little…dull?) but up top you’re pretty fearsome. Some of the crap about Sterling over the summer was awful, but to be honest I thought his first season was a little underwhelming. He looks pretty sharp so far and then there’s Silva, who is absolutely terrifying. Not sure if he’s City’s greatest ever player (Aguero surely?) but comfortably top 5.

Finally, what’s your prediction for Saturday’s game, and how do you see it panning out?

Was dreading this question. I reckon 1-1: both won’t want to give an inch. It’ll be described as a ‘fascinating, attritional and tactical encounter’ on 45 mins when in reality it was a bit shit. Too early to really go for it, I think. I reckon it’ll improve though and both will be reasonably pleased with a point.

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