St. Mary's Musings: How is this season panning out for United compared to what you thought before it had started?
Andi Thomas: The general anticipation was that last season's good moments would become this season's normal moments, the philosophy would have taken root after a year, and United would be both exceptionally competent and occasionally exciting.
Neither of those happened. In terms of performance, they've oscillated between 'quite decent' and 'hideously messy', and the only exciting performances have come when things fall totally apart, which doesn't seem sustainable. The whole business was summed up quite neatly by the last two games of the Champions League group stage: first there a 0-0 draw with PSV that felt like eating polystyrene, then a comically chaotic 3-2 loss in Wolfsburg.
SMM: Where do you see United finishing this season?
AT: Somewhere on the boundary of fourth and fifth. And is there really any difference there, when you think about it?
SMM: What did you make of United's visit to St. Mary's earlier this season?
AT: That Anthony Martial's pretty good, hey? From memory, we were a mess in defence - thanks mostly to injuries, and particularly Daley Blind - and Wayen Rooney was rubbish, but David De Gea was great and we were far more clinical in front of goal. Then that third goal came after loads of passes and everybody pretended that it hadn't hit the post so they could draw diagrams with loads of arrows on them. People are weird.
SMM: What is the general consensus about Louis van Gaal right now?
AT: Everybody's bored; nobody seems to know quite what to do about that. Given that United didn't dismiss him when they had the opportunity to go running to Jose Mourinho, it seems likely that he'll be given until the end of the season. But there have been two important-seeming stories in the last couple of weeks that suggest he might not get much longer. First, there may have been something of a dressing-room coup, with Rooney and others leading a return to more open football and more familiar training methods. Then, second, the revelations from "sources close to the family" that he's worried about his health.
If I had to guess, I'd guess that he goes over the summer. And if I had to guess further, I'd say that history will judge his time at United as being a kind of well-intentioned muddle, overseen by a manager who couldn't quite bring himself to take the handbrake off, but was very good value in press conferences.
SMM: Wayne Rooney seems to have returned to form in the last couple of weeks. Was he really as bad as what the press had you believe?
AT: Yes, he was. In fact, probably worse, given that so much of the press is dedicated to Rooney-boosterism. In some ways he still is: the goals have returned, thankfully, and he's looked sharper of late, but his pace has entirely gone, his control is woefully erratic, his passing is generally moribund and unimaginative, and his continued presence up front means that United's best striker, Anthony Martial, is playing out wide. Although thinking about it, Martial's also United's wide player, so perhaps the problems go deeper...
The caveat to all the above is that Rooney is (for good or ill) one of United's senior professionals, and is still held in very high esteem by his manager and his teammates, all of whom know more about football that I could possibly hope to. There have been suggestions that his recent goalburst has been inspired by the coup referred to above, and that he's been given a bit more freedom, tactically speaking. So ... he's not been fun to watch, let's settle on that.
SMM: We're coming to the close of the January transfer window. Would you like to see United buy some players? If so, who?
AT: There are two obvious holes in the first team that could do with filling: a ball-playing centre half to partner Chris Smalling, and a proper goalscorer to either support or supplant Rooney. This being United, there have been plenty of names floating around, but I'm not really expecting anything significant this window. This is partly because the right players might not be available midseason, and partly because the manager's future is so uncertain.
SMM: Do you and other United fans want Sadio Mane appearing for the Red Devils next year?
AT: I like him a lot: he's quick, he's direct, he's skillful, and he's not afraid to try something ambitious. But then I kind of wish Nani was still knocking around the place. One of Van Gaal's decisions this season was to streamline the squad; apparently he thinks too much competition for places can inhibit performance. So, naturally, a couple of injuries and United suddenly have a bench full of children and nobody to change a game if required. Mane's arrival might indicate a return to a larger squad.
SMM: If you could sell any United player from your regular starting XI, who would it be and why?
AT: Would you be interested in one W. Rooney? He's a few miles on the clock, granted, but he shouts at the ref like a champion.
SMM: Finally, what is your score prediction for Saturday?
AT: 1-0 to boring, boring United. Rooney, obviously.