This week we speak to Manchester United fan and The Busby Babe editor Andi Thomas ahead of their trip down to the South Coast to take on an off-colour Southampton team who haven't won a game for a month come Monday.
We talk Luke Shaw's promise, the difference between Louis Van Gaal and David Moyes, and why he would like Nathaniel Clyne to be the latest in Saints players to defect for United.
St. Mary's Musings: What were your season expectations before it started and have they changed since?
Andi Thomas: Improvement, both in results and style. Watching Moyes win was rarely fun; watching Moyes lose was painful. Basically, for Manchester United to start playing, and behaving, like Manchester United again, with all the disgusting entitlement, irritating superiority, and not-arrogant-just-better arrogance that goes along with it. Last season, nobody hated United, and even worse nobody feared United. That had to change.
As to how they've changed: the state of the league this season makes Champions League qualification all the more important. Van Gaal was tasked with getting United back into the top four in the expectation that Liverpool and Arsenal were going to be strong; now that they're both tanking a touch, and United have spent a fortune, that becomes almost mandatory.
SMM: United spent a lot of money in the summer - how do you feel about the club going in the Chelsea/City direction of splashing the cash for success? Is it sustainable?
AT: The general consensus amongst United fans is that this splurging -- which looks set to continue through the next two transfer windows -- is a necessary response to the way in which the squad was allowed to decline under Ferguson. United weren't exactly parsimonious is the latter days of Ferguson's reign but they did frequently end up spending their money in odd ways and on odd players, and the end result was a wildly unbalanced squad that had numbers but a lack of quality in some areas, and no numbers in others. <!-- ######## START FLOATED VIDEO SNIPPET ######## -->
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It's worth remembering that United were trying to spend heavily in the summer before Moyes' one season, they just failed to close any of their targets (hence the last day panic buy of Marouane Fellaini). So last summer wasn't just a post-Moyes panic. And it's hard to feel too strongly about it when you place the amount spent on footballers -- that's the sort of thing a football club is supposed to do -- next to the amount that's dribbled out of the club to service the Glazer debt.
Obviously, in an ideal world every single player on the pitch would have come through the academy. But if the club is to spend its money on either Angel di Maria or some mortgage payment, then that's not much of a choice.
As for the sustainability, the plan seems to be spend heavily last and next summer, then -- once the squad's stronger -- rein things in a touch. But hey, this is a team that has an official noodles partner. Might as well take advantage of the stupid world we live in.
SMM: How much is Fergie to blame for the decline of United's team?
AT: Ah, the £800m question.
There are books to be written on this issue. No two Manchester United have the same answer, and some don't even agree with themselves. Essentially it all goes back to the Glazers: how much of a role Ferguson played in enabling the takeover; how much of the damage they did to the club was masked by his managerial genius; how much the altered financial reality affected the club's transfer policies.
There are people who will tell you that Ferguson could have nixed the takeover by simply saying 'I will resign if this goes through'; that he was so crucial to United that his doing so would have spooked the banks. Those people may well right. Certainly, his willingness to work for the Glazers -- indeed, his apparent happiness to do so -- severely damaged his standing in the eyes of plenty, including myself.
Ultimately, if United's mess of a squad was assembled under no restrictions at all, then it's all his fault; if it was assembled, as most suspect, under the restrictions of Glazernomics, then that's a more diffuse responsibility, though he certainly doesn't escape his share. And, of course, if David Moyes getting the job was his idea, then he bears the responsibility for that. So ... somewhere between total and partial.
Of course, the question depends to a certain extent on how serious a decline this actually is, on whether this a temporary mess that can be cleaned up by an angry Dutchman wielding giant wodges of cash. United did win a title the season before last, after all. If Van Gaal goes on to win another one then last season, far from being the start of something worrying and lasting, will have just been a weird, Moyesian interregnum. And the question of Ferguson's blame will be neatly closed off.
SMM: Who has your best summer signing been and why?
AT: It's a bit weird that we bought another bloke called Marouane Fellaini, and even weirder that he looks almost identical. But he plays much better than the last bloke, which is nice. (Serious answer: it has to be Di Maria. He is so, so, so, so good. And injured, obviously.)
SMM: Saints fans will want to hear your take on Luke Shaw. What do you think of him?
AT: I like him a lot, though he's obviously not the finished article and the whacking great transfer fee was as much for the left back he could become as for the left back he is now. The early-season issues with his fitness were, looking back, a pretty good chance for Van Gaal to impose some authority early on. Make a bit of an example of a player, see how he and the wider squad respond. Obviously the coverage was a bit hysterical -- players have bespoke fitness plans all the time -- but it sets a excellent precedent: if you're not in shape, the it doesn't matter how expensive you are, you won't play. Then, once you sort yourself, you will. And he did, and so he is. Well, was.
As to whether he'd have been better off staying with Southampton, I think that would have been the case had he been brought in to sit behind an established left back. But with Patrice Evra leaving and with Marcos Rojo and Daley Blind needed (and also better) elsewhere on the pitch, he's United's first-choice left back. So he'll get the games he needs, and the position is his to lose. Encouragingly, he's been improving with almost every appearance.
SMM: How would you rate the job Louis Van Gaal has done since joining and how does he compare to David Moyes?
AT: In all the intangible stuff he's been wonderful: the anti-Moyes. Swaggering about like he owns the Premier League, chiding journalists for their silly questions, generally behaving like a Manchester United manager (as opposed to an over-promoted Everton manager. I like Moyes as a person, and I rate him as a manager in certain circumstances. But what a bonkers appointment that was). Van Gaal's trust in the young players is heartening (even if injuries have forced his hand) as, too, is his willingness to drop players regardless of their reputations. Which is why James Wilson may start over Robin van Persie on Monday.
Stylistically there's also been something of a change on the pitch, though the results (until recently) and performances have been extremely patchy. Some of that is doubtless down to the hilarious injury crisis -- we haven't seen his first-choice team yet -- but United's defensive organisation is at times all over the place, and David de Gea's had to do some excellent work. He also has a habit of making what look like very peculiar substitutions; taking off Wilson and introducing Fletcher midweek, for example, effectively invited Stoke forward, and they nearly nabbed an equaliser.
SMM: What did you make of Saints' summer? Are you surprised to see how they're doing in the league now, despite a couple of losses in a week?
AT: While I never quite bought into the 'oh my God they've sold everybody the club is doomed they'll have slipped into the Channel by Christmas' stuff, it has definitely been surprising how well and how quickly Koeman and the new players have taken to the Premier League. Keeping Morgan Schneiderlin was obviously huge -- he's a seriously impressive player -- and Fraser Forster was a canny purchase. That said, I'd be equally surprised if you didn't fall away from the top a little, as injuries start to bite.
SMM: If you could sell any one player of United's regular starting XI, who would it be and why?
AT: The more I see of him this season, the more I suspect that Robin van Persie isn't long for United. Age comes for us all.
SMM: If you could buy any of Saints' players, who would it be and why?
AT: The very impressive, very mature Nathaniel Clyne, who will be England's first-choice right back before too long. Rafael is one of my favourite humans alive, but he keeps breaking, and that's not sustainable. I hope we keep him around as a mascot though.
SMM: Finally, what is your prediction for Monday's match?
AT: If the game had come a month ago, then I'd have been very apprehensive. But with a few of your better players missing, and a couple of ours fit again, I'm actually feeling confident. Well, not confident; I'm never confident. But still, a win. Narrow and squeaky. 2-1 to United.