We interviewed the great Andi Thomas of the Busby Babes ahead of Saturday’s match against Manchester United. We talk Wayne Rooney, Romelu Lukaku, and more.
1) What do Manchester United lose without Wayne Rooney? Sure, he may have lost a step or two on the pitch, but he's still Rooney.
The biggest loss is, without question, his experience, for whatever that's worth. Maybe also his status within the dressing room -- as far as anybody can tell, he was pretty popular and well-liked at United and within English football as a whole. But otherwise, he hadn't really been Rooney for a while. His pace had almost totally gone, those powerful driving runs were a memory, his first touch had collapsed from 'occasionally unreliable' to 'frequently calamitous', and while he still remembered how to take a chance when they turned up, he wasn't quite so good at finding them.
Oh! Never mind all that. United have lost the capacity to shift huge numbers of shirts and plaster Rooney's face all over anything you might conceivably want to buy, anywhere in the world. Heartbreaking stuff. One of the great brands, gone forever.
2) How do you feel about the signing of Romelu Lukaku? He seems to have snubbed his former club, Chelsea, to join up with Jose Mourinho and United. What kind of a striker do you think he'll be them? How is he different from Zlatan Ibrahimovic?
Personally speaking, the signing of Romelu Lukaku made me feel very, very amused. But that was mostly Chelsea-directed schadenfreude, and will soon pass.
As a footballer, he's got something of a reputation as a flat-track bully, a player who only scores against weaker teams. There are various arguments going back and forth about how fair this is, but even if it's true, then that's fine. A flat-track bully is exactly what United were missing last season. The league campaign was undermined not by the performances against the top five -- though those weren't great -- but by miserable draws against Stoke, West Brom, Burnley, and so on. If all he does is score loads against midtable and bottom half teams, that'll be just dandy.
In terms of contrasts with Ibrahimovic, the obvious difference is pace and movement. Ibrahimovic had an excellent season in terms of his finishing but his presence -- and creaking legs -- meant that United couldn't look for him to run beyond defences or lead counter-attacks. Instead they had to play into him, whether long or short, and then build slowly. In theory, Lukaku should be able to get in behind high defences, or force them deeper. Which will hopefully make United a little more fun to watch; at times last season they were extremely ponderous.
Finally, the reunion with Mourinho is interesting. Lukaku has said that he understands Mourinho's reasons for moving him on, that he feels that he's improved as a result, and that there are no hard feelings. Perhaps it will all act as extra motivation for all parties. More likely, though, is that it won't make much difference. It's not like Mourinho has ever held a grudge.
3) Who is an under the radar player we should keep an eye on this season?
Both Axel Tuanzebe and Timothy Fosu-Mensah made decent cameo appearances last season, but perhaps the most intriguing young player on the edges of United's first-team squad is Andreas Pereira. A quick, gifted attacking midfielder, he spent last season on loan with Granada, and looked quite decent in a terrible team. Reports suggest that he's being given a chance to prove himself in preseason, so if he does play against LAG, he should be up for it.
4) Give us your predictions on the upcoming campaign.
There's still business to be done, and much will depend on whether Jose Mourinho can find the defensive midfielder he needs to truly soothe his troubled soul, but United needed an upgrade in central defence and at striker and have got them both. So there's plenty of reason for optimism both in terms of results and entertainment.
There were signs towards the end of last season that squad and manager were approaching a greater understanding, and we can reasonably expect to see more from Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba, particularly since the latter will have had a full preseason this time around. So if all goes to plan, then United should be back where their brand demands: scrapping with the rest of the Big Four. No, Five. Six! What a silly league this is.
Hope you join us tomorrow night, as we’ll bring you coverage throughout the day of the friendly against Manchester United.