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Interview with Rob Smyth

Red Rants welcomes Rob Smyth, formerly of the Guardian, who is currently a freelancer. He is also a Manchester United fan, so I took the chance to catch up with him and thank him for taking out time from his busy schedule. This interview was done a week ago so some of the answers may not fit in with the current state of affairs. But here you go:

Red Ranter: Hello Rob. Let’s start with something easy: your thoughts on United’s past season; players that stood out, turning points, tactics etc.

Rob Smyth: The exasperating thing about last season is that we never really got to bask in it: within days of Moscow the Ronaldo nonsense started, and even watching the end-of-season DVD is a slightly weird experience – precisely because, when you appraise the season, you can’t look beyond Ronaldo. Forty-two goals is absurd for a wide forward and, while I actually think he played better in terms of influencing games overall in 2006-07, the fact is that he scored the opening, tone-setting goal in an amazing 18 games. If that’s not a record, I’d be surprised. For all that, I still think the most important factor was the defence: two goals conceded in seven knockout games, and 22 in the league. Without the defence we’d have been out of the title race by mid-October. Statistically and actually, it’s the best defence we’ve ever had. Rio Ferdinand will never be a United legend for off-field reasons, but on it there’s an argument for saying we’ve never had a better centre-half. He is preposterously good. I’m still slightly uneasy with putting so much eggs in our defensive basket, and the tactics away to Barcelona and Chelsea still rankle, but inevitably those aesthetic concerns are dulled by the end result.

The obvious turning point was Carlos Tevez’s goal at Blackburn, without which the title would have gone into Chelsea’s hands. But in terms of the overall narrative I think a big turning point was the introduction of Anderson against Wigan. Before that we had really struggled for goals – nine in 11 games – but then we put four past them in the second half and 20 more in the next six games. That really got the season going. He faded towards the end, as is to be expected, but he was a revelation for the most part, and watching him own Gerrard at Anfield is a personal highlight of the season. Tactically it was the year we grew to love 4-3-3/4-6-0; ironic, then, that it might be sacrificed this season for a return to 4-4-1-1.

RR: Moving on to the obvious question of the summer: what do you make of the whole Ronaldo soap opera? Your thoughts on Ronaldo in general, the slave comments, and Real Madrid. Do you think there is a chance he’ll go to Madrid despite Fergie’s comments to the contrary?

RS: When I first heard Ronaldo wanted to go, I was upset but acceptant: we always knew this would be a holiday romance rather than something everlasting, like with Eric. But since then has behaviour has been astonishingly repugnant and disrespectful to basically everyone. I don’t think he will go this year – I think it has become far too big a point of principle for Ferguson – and that he will probably be allowed to go next summer. I worry about what it might do to the dressing-room but, as we saw in 2006, these things are quickly forgotten, especially when the man in question is man of the match almost every week. And he will be: there are no concerns about Ronaldo’s level of performance once he is fit. His ego is too great for him to allow that to slip.

RR: The Berbatov transfer: Do you think we need a target man, first of all? Is Berbatov the answer. You thoughts on other options if not Berbatov — the likes of Huntelaar, Benzema etc, perhaps? What do you make of the Levy-Ferguson situation, and is there a chance that he might actually sell him off to a club outside England out of spite? Or will we again pay over the odds?

RS: When I first fell in love with Berbatov, around February 2007, my instinct was that, sublime as he was, he was the wrong type of player for United, who work better with a firecracker such as Saha, stretching defenders and offering a different option. But I think Berbatov is such a fantastic footballer, quicker than we think and also very good in the air, that he couldn’t fail to be a good addition – especially as the usual concern, how he will adjust to the Premiership, is not an issue. And he’s so obviously a United player: unbelievably talented, and with a Cantonese swagger that will piss off opposing fans.

I know people think Berbatov’s signing would compromise the 4-6-0 United played towards the end of the season, but I am not so sure. He’s more mobile than many realise, and has the capacity and the game to roam wherever he wants – albeit from a central base – so in that respect I think United have the capacity to play the same way as last season. That said, Ferguson’s recent comments about playing Rooney out of position, and the departure of Queiroz, might well mean a return to Fergie’s old favourite 4-4-1-1. In that case, Rooney and Berbatov look an absolutely superb partnership. Either way I think it’s a good signing: maybe not for £30m, but despite the debt money feels almost irrelevant when United go into the market, because you know they are going to get done on the price.

I don’t think Levy will sell abroad, mainly because I’m not sure there’s that much interest. If it did fall through Benzema would be perfect – in fact I’d take him over Berbatov – but it seems there is no chance of that. I’m not convinced by Huntelaar, who I’m not sure is mobile enough and seems a bit too much like 04-06 Van Nistelrooy to me. Eto’o seems to carry too much baggage, even though stylistically he is absolutely perfect for this side. So it all comes back to Berbatov; there are worryingly few viable alternatives.

RR: Any other positions that need strengthening?

RS: Right-back is certainly a concern. There is scarcely any precedent for a player of Neville’s age coming back from a long-term injury to play regularly. Brown overachieved last season but is still limited in that position, particularly in possession. And the cover is less than inspiring: Simpson has promise but the first half against Everton suggested he was out of his depth, and O’Shea is no more than mediocre. Hargreaves might be our best back-up there.

The other area in which we are incredibly weak is goalscoring from midfield. I accept that, in part, that is a product of the way we play, with two deep-lying midfielders, but nonetheless a return of eight in 179 games from the five main CMs is appalling for a side with such quality and ambition. You would hope there is scope for Anderson to add this to his game; as we saw with Ronaldo, and also Fabregas last season, goalscoring is often the final frontier for a talented young player, and when they do they come in spades.

Cheers for your time Rob.

I did send him a follow up question regarding Ronaldo’s interview, and his views now on the whole saga. When he does reply, I will add it to the interview. I do hope to do some more interviews during the season with other people (perhaps with Rob again, sometime in the future). So watch this space.

Update: Here’s my follow up question on the Ronaldo interview and his opinion on the Portuguese winger.

RR: Now that Ronaldo has spoken about his intent. What are your thoughts? Do you think the OT faithful will forgive. Will he still be booed by fans to let him know what they think of him. What would it really take for him to win back the affection? Will you forgive?

RS: I think the Megastore Majority will forgive, but the harder core won’t, and I doubt we’ll hear Viva Ronaldo at too many away games. To them I think he will become a footballing fuck-buddy: someone who gives you moments of ecstasy but without any emotional commitment whatsoever. I’d be really amazed if he won back the away support: not because of his desire to go to Madrid, which is fine, but for the way in which he went about it. I think the only possible way it could happen is incrementally, over a period of three or four years in which he doesn’t say anything about Madrid. But that simply isn’t going to happen.