Manchester United Season Preview: divided fanbase?

With the 2018-19 Premier League season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Manchester United fan John Shin (@MrJohnShin) – check out his excellent YouTube channel.

Finishing second and reaching the FA Cup final should not equal a disastrous season on paper, yet United fans seemed happier after 2016-17 when you’d only finished sixth. Does that show the importance of winning trophies?

United fans in general seem very divided on many opinions since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, and one of the main topics of debate always seem to be the definition of “success” for Manchester United. For the most part, I believe all fans can agree that trophies, more often than not, are a clear, factual representation of a “successful” return: you win, you’re rewarded. For me, I think us United fans have been spoiled with SAF in that we had nothing else to worry about in terms of club status, i.e. Transfers, Champions League, player/manager fallouts, etc. I mean, one of the biggest talking points debated during SAF’s time was Wayne Rooney for Pete’s sake, I wish that was our main topic of debate NOW!

SAF’s departure meant new rules, new definitions, new beliefs and new standards. We’ve been used to a winning legend for close to thirty years, of course it’d be a difficult challenge! At our current state, I personally thought a second place finish without a trophy was not more successful, but rather, more “important” in our current club stature. Manchester United might not have always been a dominant force in Europe, but Manchester United have been the leading club in the Premier League.

SAF knew how to dominate the domestic league, and that repertoire will always be ingrained in our DNA. Finishing higher in the league and grinding out points was definitely a tough challenge, but sixth to second is a big jump, a much-needed jump. That being said, how can you blame the fans for saying that a trophy isn’t success? I understand both sides. Fans will never be 100% pleased.

David De Gea has been arguably your only consistently world-class player since Sir Alex Ferguson left. How important has he become?

I might sound like I’m being overly dramatic, but I personally think David de Gea has been one of the reasons why Manchester United have not capitulated since SAF’s departure. People compare David to Neo from Matrix (that popular meme), but I’d rather compare DDG to Jesus, if anything.

Quick back-story: Under Moyes and LVG, our teams have been extremely dull in offense. Under these managers, our XI seemed to always be deployed in a static, defensive-priority mentality, and consequently found it much harder to create chances in transition to attack. How can you attack with risk and creativity if you’re set up to defend first?

Anyways, the reason why I mentioned this was simply to highlight the irony. Despite looking more defense-minded, we always seemed to invite so much pressure, and thus, invite opportunities for opposition to shoot. David de Gea has saved the team on a countless number of situations with saves so unbelievable that you’d think you were watching FIFA 18. Without his world class qualities, I’m almost certain Moyes/LVG would’ve been sacked earlier, and our wounds would’ve been much, much deeper. The first few years of transition post-Fergie was always going to be one of the toughest transition in PL history, and I’m certain David de Gea eased the pain for Manchester United more than people realize.

Ex-wingers Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young aren’t as quick as they used to be. Are you hoping that the signing of Diogo Dalot, and possibly a resurgence for Luke Shaw, will freshen up the full-back areas?

I’m still worried about the depth of our squad, and I’m even more so worried that we’re going to have another season of Tony V and Ashley Young. Before I go on, I just want to say for the record that I’m not against the aforementioned two being Manchester United players. Rather, I appreciate the amount of work they needed to put in in order to convert from wingers to defenders at a time of dire need. Fans might roast them for being trash at times, but credit is given when it’s due – these two are loyal servants for the club and should be appreciated.

Now, onto the real issue at hand. I mentioned that Tony V and Ashley Young worked hard to change positions, but from a logical perspective, they were only deployed as defensive options simply due to the fact that they just could not produce in their initial positions as wingers. Tony V’s cross couldn’t beat the first man 9/10 times, and Ashley Young’s inconsistencies in attack along with his diving issue left fans with lots of questions. We should not be having two, back-up attacking options converted to first-choice defenders. It’s simple as that.

Why are United continuing to rely on these two season after season? It baffles me. Perhaps finance is the issue? Perhaps the manager’s transfer kitty needs priority in other areas? I don’t know. One thing is for certain – we cannot continue to rely on these two as our starting XI’s fullbacks. Full stop.

Diogo Dalot is a promising young talent, but I don’t believe that he was signed on to take on the starting role immediately. Perhaps Jose wanted Dalot to ease into the squad and eventually take over Tony V?

That makes more sense considering that the options available in the market are thin. I can go on about the enigma of Luke Shaw, but this is his make-or-break season. If he doesn’t show up this season and impress a hard-man like Mourinho and convince him to start over Young, we need to move him on.

He had so much potential and I was a massive fan, but since his leg break injury he has never been the same. He made Memphis Depay shine alongside himself on that left-side, and I wish they had a full season together. Such a shame.

Chris Smalling and Phil Jones looked limited in possession, Victor Lindelof has been inconsistent while Eric Bailly had injury issues last year. Are you surprised you’ve not had more changes in the centre-back department?

I don’t thinks surprised is the right word – perhaps disappointed? I’ve been calling out for the exit of Phil Jones for as long as I can remember, and yet he continues to stay in our team. Lindelof and Bailly were always going to need time. Prior to their arrival, I had hoped that we would’ve signed an established CB for the sake of providing guidance to the new defenders and their life in the Premier League, but they’re forced to sit on the sidelines and watch Phil Jones and Chris Smalling in defence.

I don’t hate the two players, but I do not think they should be the “standard” of Manchester United’s central defensive partnership. Call me spoiled, but I’m more upset about our CBs than our fullbacks – you CANNOT go from Rio Ferdinand / Nemanja Vidic to Chris Smalling and Phil Jones. Granted both have done much service for the club (which I appreciate always), but their inconsistencies have driven me mad at times. While many seem to prefer Jones over Smalling, I prefer the latter as I think he’s been much more consistent than the injury-prone Phil Jones throughout the years since the departure of Rio/Vida. We need additions at the back.

When you paired Nemanja Matic with either Scott McTominay or Ander Herrera in that double-pivot last year, you seemed short on dynamism and creativity from deep. Is that something you hope Brazilians Fred or Andreas Pereira can provide?

For me, playing in a 4-2-3-1 with a double-pivot only works for Manchester United when you have a front-four that’s ready to fight with lethality and cutting edge attack. Having four players with a balance of pace, strength and creativity in your forward line always helps to stretch opposition, thus allowing for more passing options from deep.

It’s a very broad description, but I wanted to highlight this issue because I find it unfair to point the finger solely on Matic and Herrera here. Paul Pogba is also a perfect example of this conundrum. On his day, Pogba can do it all, but those days have seemed more rare than not under Mourinho, and you can’t point a finger at one person for that matter.

I personally think Matic/Ander has the vision in them to dictate transition from deep, but Mourinho’s methods with his forward line hasn’t helped our midfield’s cause. We’ve had a shuffle between playing Mata/Rashford/Lingard off the right, and Alexis/Lingard/Rashford/Martial on the left.

The only clear positions we’ve really had was when we played Lukaku as a 9 with Lingard playing the 10. You can’t expect Mata to play on the right and stretch opposition by running down the flank with his feet ablaze – that’s just not his playing style. Mourinho knows this, so he shuffles his squad around for the sake of balance, which I can appreciate. At the end of the day, we need to find squad balance.

And speaking of balance, I think the inclusion of Fred and Pereira will definitely provide a much needed bolstering in midfield. These additions will provide options and competition in our midfield department – something we’ve been sorely lacking. I’m not expecting neither Fred nor Andreas Pereira to light up the Premier League immediately, but we’ve seen glimpse of what they can provide in the middle of the park, and I’m staying positively hopeful.

Paul Pogba enjoyed a successful World Cup with France. Would you agree that at United, without full-backs and other midfielders pushing forward, he has perhaps been expected to do too much on his own?

I briefly mentioned this above, but I am a huge believer in that Pogba is not currently being played to his strength.

When we re-signed Paul Pogba, I hoped that United built a team around Paul and played in a style that would allow him to operate more freely in the middle of the pitch. However, everyone knows that this wasn’t the case – rather, the complete opposite.

If I were to sum this up, I would say that Paul Pogba plays at his best when HIS TEAM exudes the pressure, the intensity and dominates the pitch. Manchester United under Jose Mourinho is not a team that exudes pressure, intensity and dominates the pitch. Manchester United under Jose Mourinho invites pressure in hopes of catching opposition in counter-attack transition, plays with less intensity than other powerhouses in Europe, and definitely doesn’t dominate possession/pitch. Fullbacks, midfield, attackers, everyone – United as an entity just does not play in a style that would push opposition back.

We look to be the fiercer opponent on a good number of occasions as well, but my general description applies to games against bigger fish – teams that sit in the upper echelons of the footballing world.

With all this in mind, some fans (and perhaps Mourinho included) expect Pogba to take the ball from a defensive position, dribble past five people, look for a give-and-go with someone up front and smash a 40-yard screamer on every attempt. It’s just unfair.

Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial started last season in fine form. Do you subscribe to the theory that the arrival of Alexis Sanchez, who plays in the same positions, interfered with their confidence?

Of course it did – these are young players that need more time to find consistency and understand their roles. Bringing in Alexis forced a shuffle in our forward line again, and a few players (mainly Martial/Rashford) were forced to pick up new positions/responsibilities, or sit on the sidelines.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of us signing Alexis Sanchez, but his quality is certain and definitely cements his place in the squad as one of the most valuable assets. Bringing him in mid-season was a horrible way to add to a questionable squad, but someone with Alexis’ ability won’t be in the market for long if available. I’m looking forward to what he can do this season, and what Rashford/Martial can do to learn/play alongside the Chilean.

Romelu Lukaku had an excellent season last year. How important a player do you expect him to be over the next few seasons?

If he continues to score 30+ goals a season and improve on a consistent basis, he’s going to be one of the most important players that will serve as the spine of United (De Gea – centre-back – Pogba– Lukaku). Critics (including myself, initially) questioned his previous stints, his lack of a clean first touch, and his past with Mourinho, but he’s proved all doubters wrong last season and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us here at United for years to come.

A lot of youngsters have been brought on pre-season tour, partly because of a lot of senior players being on holiday after the World Cup. Do you feel the likes of Demetri Mitchell, Angel Gomes and Tahith Chong have taken that opportunity?

I think this tour served one purpose and one purpose only – give our youngsters game time in front of Mourinho. The manager’s been moaning on about the lack of available players on the tour for pre-season training (and rightly so to a certain degree), but I figured that message was more of a cry for Woodward/board and thus allowed me to focus on keeping tabs on these youngsters.

I was extremely happy to see Chong in particular, as we haven’t seen much of him around the first team at all. None of them were going to impress Mourinho so much during pre-season that they’d start in the Premier League this season, but I’m sure they provided glimpses of potential quality for both the manager and the fans. I look forward to watching their development as players.

Red Devils aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Premier League season as a whole? How do you rate your competitors?

A combination of the World Cup and the reduced Transfer Window time-frame definitely caused a somewhat-pleasant chaos, but this season is definitely going to be a make-or-break for a few clubs in the top six clubs, including Mourinho/United.

Spurs have not signed a single player going into the new season (that’s amazing, is that a record?), so in a way, will be the ultimate test for Pochettino & Co. Arsenal fans will now be going through what United fans went through five years ago – nervous, hopeful, and unknowing. The energy seems a bit different, though – Unai Emery definitely feels a lot more comfortable than David Moyes, doesn’t it?

Liverpool looks stronger than ever with the signing of Alisson and the addition of Naby Keita. Klopp’s problem has always been at the back for Liverpool, and now with a more stable defence in Virgil van Dijk and Alisson, they’ll definitely be a force to be reckoned with alongside Pep’s City this season.

Where will you finish?

I’m always praying we finish 1st, but I think we’ll finish somewhere in the top four. Second place with a trophy or two?

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Crisis is already looming over Manchester United. Jose Mourinho’s brutal man management style appears to alienate young players, sabotaging potential for squad evolution, while Ed Woodward only seems interested in selling shirts. In David De Gea and Romelu Lukaku, The Red Devils possess match-winning individuals, while a decent centre-back could join. Mourinho though is unlikely to deviate from a system that leaves them lacking width, dynamism and creativity from deep, which is needed to take the burden off key individuals. As English football’s elite modernizes, United could fall some way behind. 8th