It's time for Fan Focus, where we speak to a member of the opposition fanbase and get there views on their club, the weekends game and more. This week we speak to Gene Um from The Busby Babe ahead of our clash with Manchester United.
United are sitting comfortably a-top the Premier League at the moment. How's this season been so far in your eyes?
Gene Um: United are, indeed, sitting top of the table with a six point lead and we are in good position in Europe. Fans cannot complain about that. This is further appreciated after our humbling exit(s) out of Europe last season and after blowing an 8-point lead in the past campaign with 6 fixtures to go. The performances, though, leave a bit to be desired. Many of us wonder if the current results are sustainable in the long run. I've had a glance at your following questions so I hope my answers there can provide more specifics. Overall though, in a general sense, United should be thrilled in a tangible regard -- top of the group in Europe, a 6-point lead in league, and wins away to Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester City.
Early on in the year it seemed that United couldn't win without allowing themselves to go behind first. Has this disappeared from their game, and if so what's changed?
GU: This is rightfully pointed out, and to be honest, this has been both maddening and thrilling. From the perspective of my miserable soul, it's been more concerning. I don't remember the exact figures, perhaps that's because I tend to neglect the fallacies of my life and of the things of I love, but it's something like going behind now in 15 of our 24 matches we've gone behind.
Not that I pay particular attention to many Sunderland supporters (that's not to mean any disrespect, it's just that my attention span is poor -- but I do fancy a Michael Carrick square pass for some reason, so that doesn't explain my ADHD), but I'm sure Jonathan Wilson would question our shape. And the great Sunderland fan would be right.
In most domestic matches, Sir Alex Ferguson is going to instruct his front four, full-backs, and a central-midfielder to get forward -- or as the Old Trafford faithful like to chant, "attack... attack... attack, attack, attack!" In a very simple sense, the full-backs tend to get caught out (I'd defend them by saying many don't appreciate that they essentially play two positions in the modern game) but when United lose possession, the central-defenders and the central-midfielders are often left to scramble back in space. Rio Ferdinand is a boss and he should be in time be regarded as a legend, but he's vulnerable on the turn and in space now. I'm still trying to erase from my memory when Michael Kightly humiliated him.
Quite simply, we're brave going forward but we're too open when we lose possession and part of that is because we lack necessary mobility and bite. (the other part of that is in the next question). United leave much too much space in the central areas when the opposition transitions -- part of that is because Ferdinand sits too deep.
A lot of United fans I've spoken to have been crying out for a quality central midfielder to come to the club. Does this need to be addressed, will it be addressed, and who would you like to see brought in?
GU: Here are things I wish for in life: peace in the Middle East, a cure for cancer and Alzheimer's, a date (or 100) with Eva Green, and a dynamic or physical presence in midfield for United. Anderson is nice, when he's in the mood, but he seems to fancy a pie or a floodlight going out for a second half-time delay so that he can be energized to go a full 90 minutes.
In full health and form, United's midfield isn't as bad as most fans or the mainstream media make out it out to be... but it's far from elite. If anything, the midfield needs a mobile physical presence that can protect technical players like Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick and Tom Cleverley. Another Roy Keane would simply get banned from football in the modern game but a player like Juventus' Arturo Vidal providing protection would probably liberate someone like the great Scholes to dictate matches -- similar to what the Chilean does for Andrea Pirlo. This is the sort of player we need. A time machine that could kidnap Darren Fletcher from 4-5 years ago would be worth plenty of money as well (poor Fletch and his illness).
I have no idea what Ferguson will do in January (probably nothing) or in the summer if he doesn't retire. The one need in the engine room, though, is a physical driving presence. This is much more so than the media's calling for a 'Paul Scholes replacement'.
Have you managed to see anything of Sunderland this season, and what do you make of our current predicament?
GU: I love football. Apparently more than my friends and family. I watch too much football.
In very simple matters, and from my opinion... Steven Fletcher is highly dependent on service from the wingers who are apparently on drugs (does this explain their inconsistent form?), I said 'Yay' when I sorted out Jack Colback and Sebastian Larsson don't have near the mobility nor the combativeness of the injured Lee Cattermole, I wonder what zombie wears Stephane Sessegnon's shirt this season, and John O'Shea is still adorable. That's my basic personnel assessment.
Martin O'Neill, though, is a boss (okay, that was literal and an obvious comment). I was hardly surprised when he took over last season and when he got instant results from his basic (and easy to understand) tactics and ability to rally the proverbial troops. His clear approach seemed necessary and welcome after Steve Bruce. I am surprised by recent results though. He's got tricky wingers in James McClean and Adam Johnson, a physical centre-forward in Fletcher, and a hard-working group (from my perspective) elsewhere. Y'all know better than I... but I assumed Sunderland would be mid-table and if O'Neill got things right with a bit of luck, I thought you could contend for a spot in Europe. A relegation battle would be shocking in the season's latter months, despite the standing of the current table.
Looking at the game itself this weekend, where do you think United will have the most joy - who should we be particularly on guard against?
GU: Wide areas and central-midfield. McClean and Johnson seem to switch off at times and our wide combinations -- Valenica/Rafael and Young/Evra -- enjoy taking advantage of overloads on the flanks. From watching recent matches against Norwich City and Chelsea, I saw that there enjoyable spaces in the central-areas of the park -- depending on high O'Neill likes to deploy his central-midfielders and central-midfielders. United like to work between the lines (Wayne Rooney's space) and they have enough pace to get in behind defenses if y'all push high. If Sunderland sit back, Carrick, Scholes, and Cleverley are dangerous men to leave time on the ball. I guess it depends on where O'Neill decides to concede space.
Is there anyone from the Sunderland side which you think can give you guys a problem?
GU: Yes, definitely yes. If McClean and Johnson get going, we're in trouble. We haven't exactly been convincing in clearing out crosses this season, nor in recent seasons. To be honest, and when considering Sunderland's trouble in converting chances in open play, I'm not too concerned from open play... we are not, though, the dominant defensive force we used to be. Set-pieces can be a great equaliser for the Black Cats.
Personnel wise, we're okay. Scheme-wise, despite most pundits in England (bless you Gary Neville) having a stroke for ignorant reasons in regards to zonal marking, we're fine in our hybrid zonal-marking schemes. It's simply about execution for United -- we haven't executed consistently though.
United man-mark three threats and they use one player typically now, Jonny Evans to 'sweep' on corners -- screen or slip one, though, which has been much too easy, and Sunderland will have chances. Fletcher and Carlos Cuellar should be foaming at the mouth of the prospect.
What do you make of this so-called "revenge mission" that Wayne Rooney and other United players seem to be on for this one? All of us here find it quite hilarious that United even seem to care about it so much.
GU: Agree. I've had a few lovable and mercurial figures in my life -- whether that be siblings, distant relatives, friends, or girls I've dated.
If Wazza is worked up about the reaction at the Stadium of Light at last season's end, (or something else that I'm missing here in this question), I find it laughable -- but I'd be glad if it's another motivation. To each our own.
Finally, how do you see the game going and what do you think the score will be?
GU: I hate predictions, but I'll offer this one: Sunderland score the opening five goals and we're down again, United finally stop being bored by responding with five goals, John O'Shea scores an apparent stoppage time winner as an emergency goalkeeper, and then Bebe scores a brace in extra time for a 7-6 victory.