Ahead of Monday’s FA Cup quarterfinal showdown against José Mourinho and his new Manchester United family, I exchanged a few questions and answers with Brent Maximin, the blog manager over at The Busby Babe. They have the reverse version of this, where I talk about Juan Mata’s loveliness, Mourinho’s legacy, and Conte’s magic touch. So be sure to read that as well.
WAGNH: We know that Mourinho's a master of spin, but how has he been able to sell his objectively disappointing first season as something of a cosmic injustice?
TBB: I would say it’s less to do with Mourinho’s spin, and more down to the lowered expectations brought on by the mostly god-awful last three seasons. The football under both Moyes and van Gaal was borderline unwatchable most weeks. Despite the one 4th place finish and an FA Cup win, United fans have definitely had a rude post-Fergie awakening about the quality of the squad. At least so far under Mourinho, we can see signs of something coming together. We’re still in with the chance of winning another cup or two, and top 4 isn’t yet out of reach. Just as importantly, the product on pitch is (usually) fun again. It also helps that Mourinho hasn’t acted like a dick. Yet. The charm offensive has been in full force, and slowly but surely, we’re seeing the signs of a team coming together as well.
WAGNH: While y'all have had far too many draws to compete for the league title, those sort of results tend to mean success in knockout competitions. Is there any reason United won't be winning a cup-triple this season?
TBB: The Mickey Mouse Treble is definitely on! We should be favorites at this point to win the Europa League, but I’m not counting on it, even if that competition becomes the top priority soon. The most immediate threat to winning all three is obviously playing your boys on Monday. We never win at the Bridge, even when we’ve been clearly the better team - it’s been a bogie fixture for us since the 90s, at least. So going there now in between European competition, to face a better team, and missing our top scorer - to progress to the next round would be a pleasant surprise. Other than that, fixture pile-up and fatigue are probably our biggest challenges at this point. As you well know, Mourinho tends not to rotate his core players, and I can’t see him giving up on the Top 4 chase, even if Champions League qualification through winning the Europa League starts looking a safer bet.
WAGNH: Manchester United played a 3-5-2 system against Rostov on Thursday. Is that a one-off for the extra special crapness of the Europa League, or is that a hint of something we might expect for Monday?
TBB: I’m not sure. It’s the first time we’ve seen that this season, and it could just be that Mourinho was being cautious on a crap pitch in a game where injuries would’ve been the last thing we needed. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see him try to match Chelsea’s formation on Monday. Especially with Ibrahimovic out, we’ll have the pace in attack to sit deep and play on the counter-attack - something that is prototypical Mourinho in an away game against a rival. In theory, anyway. In reality, we may barely have one reliable center back, never mind three.
WAGNH: Zlatan will be missing out because somebody dared to jump into his elbow. Is that a boon (as some critics have insinuated) or a hindrance (he is your leading goalscorer after all)?
TBB: Zlatan is great, but he's been played too much. The Swede's lack of mobility is a clear ceiling on how well United can play, but his hold-up play and general quality have been invaluable at times also. An enforced rest would have been a blessing in disguise, but I'd rather he had he elbowed David Luiz - and missed the following league fixtures - rather than Tyrone Mings. The pace of Marcus Rashford will allow United to play effectively on the counter-attack (unless Mourinho does something stupid like play Wayne Rooney), but we would've been better off with the experience of Ibrahimovic on Monday.
WAGNH: Paul Pogba, world's most expensive player. Discuss.
TBB: Pogba will be the best player in this league within 12 months. He has tended to showcase his ability in flashes, rather than dominating matches every week like we know he will eventually, but there's no disputing his quality. His price tag was dictated by the market, and I couldn't care less what he cost. It's not like the Glazers are going to pass the savings on to the fans anyway. Lesser players will be transferred for higher fees in the coming windows - the sport has gone mad, etc., etc. As much I have full faith in his ability, I won't deny that he has had games where he looks bang average. But he's also 23, coming off a tiring summer and no preseason, and playing every meaningful minute for a team in transition. He's good now, but he'll be better next year.
WAGNH: What's the deal with Chelsea fan Luke Shaw?
TBB: Shaw has the potential to be the best left-back in the country, but neither van Gaal nor Mourinho have been impressed with his application, and by all accounts, his teammates aren't exactly clamoring for him to be treated better. If he responds to the challenge that Mourinho has laid down, United have an outstanding left-back for the next decade. If he doesn't, he'll be moved on. I like him, but he won't be the first gifted player to get found out for professionalism after making a big move. None of our other left-back options are any good, so he still has a good chance to force himself to be considered first-choice.
WAGNH: Mourinho, like most modern coaches, has never stayed in one place for much longer than three seasons. Right now, do you see that pattern changing with United, and if so, why?
TBB: Possibly. I think United is a job that he's always wanted, and he ended up coming here at an appropriate time: both he and the club have had recent chastening experiences, and are both more humble for it. If success follows, and if he resists his more confrontational instincts, I don't see why he wouldn't stick around for another team cycle following this one.
WAGNH: I think we can safely assume it won't be another 4-0 on Monday. Care to offer a prediction?
TBB: Despite recent and not-so-recent history, current form, and common sense, I'm going for 0-1 to United.