Writers United: Half-Time Checkup (ft. Rodney McCain)

The boys talk about United’s season so far, and where they think the club will be, come May.

How do you think the season’s gone so far domestically?

To be honest, if it wasn’t for the frankly unbelievable form of our Blue neighbours, then you could look at the Premier League table and say we’ve done very well, certainly in terms of putting points on the board & improving on last season’s results against most of the teams we’ve played so far. However, Manchester City are putting us under pressure to keep cranking out winning results just to hang onto their coat-tails now, & barring a collapse on a scale never before witnessed, the league title is heading to the wrong Manchester club from our point of view.

I’d also have to say that, after a great opening few weeks to the season when we were looking sharp & punishing teams ruthlessly, this United side have largely laboured to a lot of victories, and at times the football has been ‘functional’ rather than riveting. The recent display against City was totally inept, with the defeat fully merited after we simply allowed David Silva & Kevin de Bruyne to waltz around our pitch virtually unchallenged for 90 minutes.

What about Europe? How’s the return to the European elite been for United?

The European Cup has been very good, in terms of results and progress to the knock-out phase in the spring, with us fairly easily topping our Group, but again much of the football on show has been far from exciting in many games, with our double-header wins over Benfica highlighting some good fortune rather than anything extraordinary from the players. Sevilla will pose a big threat to our chances of making the Quarter-Finals, but I’d rather face them than Real Madrid or Bayern Munich! With the way City have taken a stranglehold on the Premier League, Europe represents our sole hope of winning one of the two truly ‘big’ trophies, but I feel we are some way off overcoming the likes of Barcelona or Paris St. Germain…worse than that, I have a bad feeling City will go very close to lifting the European Cup as well, which would be a dreadful sight from our point of view….

A word on Jose, then? What’s he got right and what does he need to improve?

I should admit up-front that I never wanted Jose to become United manager (largely due to his appalling treatment of poor Eva Carneiro), and in some ways he has remained the confrontational, irritating character he was in his second spell at Chelsea; his utterances in some post-match interviews are bizarre & irrational (for example, Bristol City were far from ‘lucky’ to beat us in the League Cup Quarter-Final), but I guess that ‘comes with the territory’. In general he has certainly improved us as a squad & a few players have definitely progressed under his watch, not least the recent re-emergence of Anthony Martial as one of the brightest talents in Europe. Our results have been much better than previously and to try to claim otherwise would be churlish & inaccurate, but the football we are playing is rarely as ‘swashbuckling’ as we’d like it to be, with the manager seeming to be unwilling to trust his players to play more offensively against better opposition. The problem with that approach is that we simply aren’t good enough defensively to win ‘big’ games with his negative ‘must not lose’ mindset….and I guess my conclusion on Mourinho is: it’s OK, but let’s hope it gets better.

Who’s been our best player so far?

Paul Pogba is, by far, the best player at United, and when he plays well United move up to a different level than nearly every other team in England. When he has been out with injury or suspension, his absence is starkly noticeable. I’d say Nemanja Matic has also been very good; the big Serb gives you “exactly what it says on the tin”, defensive organisation and a good shield for the back line. Phil Jones has been mostly steady at the back, and David de Gea is now the best goalkeeper in the world, a colossus between the sticks.

And who needs to pull up their socks?

Henrikh Mkhitaryan has suffered more than anyone else from the lengthy spell Pogba spent injured, totally losing his form & influence on games during that period, and if he remains at United beyond January (which I’m not at all sure he will do), we need to see a VAST improvement from him. I’m also dubious about Chris Smalling’s ability as a commanding centre-back, though he has been decent in a number of games recently. Matteo Darmian is as limited a player as I’ve seen at United in many years.

Where do you see our rivals finishing the season?

Alas, Manchester City will win the Premier League title unless they suffer an injury crisis of Biblical proportions, and to be fair they have been easily the most impressive team to date & would deserve their success; they also look to be firm favourites for the League Cup now too (man, that was painful to type….); Liverpool have yet again failed to address their defensive issues (Lovren is far too prone to errors to be a regular centre-half in a title-challenging team, and Mignolet isn’t reliable), so whilst they are a huge threat coming forward, they concede too many ‘soft’ goals to be able to live with City when major trophies are being handed out.

Let us know where you predict United will finish in each competition:

Premier League: 2nd, if we continue to play reasonably well and/or dig out results. If not, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham remain a threat to our current league position.

Champions League: We should have too much for Sevilla over two legs (assuming we have no major injuries around that time period); after that we need luck in the draw, but anything beyond the Quarter-Finals would be very good, since in reality the Quarters are about right for where we are as a squad in European terms now. I have a nagging fear that City might win this, which would be a disaster.

FA Cup: Hugely dependent on avoiding other major clubs in the draw, but if so we should at least make the Quarter-Finals, and certainly have enough to win the Cup.

Finally, rate United’s season so far on 10 – 7 (based on progression to the knock-out stages in Europe and a very healthy Premier League position right now- if City weren’t so far out of reach it might have been an ‘8’).