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Pawel Smyk - Interview with Jonathan Northcroft for www.manutd.pl

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This season seems crucial for Manchester United, because another year without Champions League could cause disaster. If Van Gaal's team won't finish the league in the TOP 4, the manager should get sacked or is he the right man to bring Man United back to the top?

- I think Van Gaal has as good a chance as any manager out there of returning Manchester United to where the club wants to be. It has to be looked upon as a long term project. I feel the club betrayed its traditions by firing David Moyes so quickly – even if his results weren’t good. United are still a long way from playing well, but results are starting to come and the confidence and ruthlessness Van Gaal instils in players is showing. He has a great record of bringing clubs success over time and should be judged at the end of his three years.

How would you asset the work of Louis van Gaal from tactical point of view? What is he doing wrong and what’s good? What are his weakness and strengths?

- The biggest thing that I notice is Van Gaal addresses fundamentals. For him tactics are more than formations and plans to stop particular opponents. He is looking for a “complete” way of playing, that the team can use game after game. In particular, he wants passing to be very quick and very purposeful. And he wants players to spread out and offer coverage of a pitch, when United are in possession. The team aren’t executing their passing well enough at the moment but you can see what he’s trying to do.

The weaknesses are definitely in United’s defending. The back three hasn’t worked and the midfield is not providing enough protection. However there have been so many injuries in this department that it’s not fair to judge Van Gaal yet.

It seems that the statement "United’s problems started with the appointment of David Moyes" is sweeping. Are you able to point out a particular moment when United started to fall behind the European elite, mainly in the tactical aspects? Was it Hargreaves’s injury, the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo or maybe it was any other event?

- While it is true that United have never been quite as dangerous since Ronaldo left, they did reach the 2011 Champions League final without him, so they were still in the European elite at that point. In fact in Ferguson’s last season they were incredibly unlucky not to beat Real Madrid in the Champions League knockout stages.

Hargreaves was a big loss and United’s lack of a defensive midfielder has cost them at times in Europe, but Michael Carrick, from 2007-2013, was a brilliant holding midfielder – albeit of a different sort.

In 2013-14 United suffered partly because Carrick had a poor season (because of injuries). But for me the biggest reason for United’s downturn is that a generation of superb players was not replaced properly. Vidic/Ferdinand/Evra got old and the young defenders Ferguson put faith in did not develop into top, top players (and I doubt Evans or Smalling ever will. Jones has the capacity but still lacks maturity and gets injured too much). And in midfield nobody has replaced Giggs/Scholes adequately.

This summer’s signings may be the beginning of a process of getting United back to the top – but there is a long long way to go.

What do you think of Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj roles in the team? The Spaniard seems to struggling a little bit, he costed a lot of money, but now is often on the bench, because Wayne Rooney plays in his position. Belgian also plays not as much as I think everyone expected.

- Mata is a No10 but can’t play there because of Wayne Rooney. And rightly so: Rooney is more of a leader and scores more goals. He hasn’t been able to flourish in an alternative position and that’s surprising, because of his quality. He should be able to play well as a No8 (Cazorla made this transformation for Arsenal) or as a wider player behind the attacking line (Silva made this transformation for Man City). His specific problem in the Premier League seems to be a lack of physical strength and dynamism and he probably has to work harder on his workrate. He has been a big disappointment.

Januzaj has gone backwards this season and I’m surprised because I thought he’d be exactly the kind of player who would flourish under Van Gaal. But Van Gaal has very particular demands and maybe as a young, free-spirited player, he’s struggling to adapt to them.

What do you think of Man United’s transfer policy and Ed Woodward work after he took over from David Gill?

- It has changed completely. It’s certainly bold but is it thought-out? Not signing more defensive players this summer was very odd. The strategy seems to be to buy stars and I think that’s to do with marketing – it’s easier for Woodward to sell the United brand to all the foreign sponsors if there are big, glamorous players at the club. It’s very like the Galactico policy of Real Madrid under Perez.

What has Twitter changed in your job and social media in general? Is it easier now or you’re more of a „it used to be better” type of journalist?

- Twitter has certainly increased the demands on my time and there are moments when you wish it had never been invented. I don’t understand why people get so angry and abusive on there.

But, that said, it can also be great fun and I find it makes you think more as a journalist. You have to be surer of your opinions and if you write something stupid, people will be very quick to tell you. So maybe it improves us!

How do you prepare for interviews? Can you talk more about that? And also, do you think that researching the background of your interviewee is essential to succeed in them?

- As a younger writer I spent a lot of time reading previous interviews and devising lists of questions. But as I’ve matured, I’ve tried to get away from that. The reason is that if you simply base an interview on previous articles and on the information that’s already out there, you’re unlikely to come up with something new.

What I try and do now is read thoroughly about the interviewee, but also do a lot of thinking about what I’d like to find out from them. And I try and speak to people who know them as part of my research, to gain some ‘inside’ info on them.

My aim in an interview is to make it like a natural conversation, so the subject is at ease and happy to open up. So I no longer produce lists of questions. I come up with topics and the key things I’d like to find out but try and improvise as much as possible when the interview is in full flow.

Can you describe a typical day of a football correspondent like for example during the match day?

- Our days have very little pattern – that’s one of both the attractions and the downsides of being a journalist. My paper publishes once a week, so I spend all week building up to a Saturday, doing interviews and features and making calls to uncover stories. Saturdays can be incredibly hectic. At worst, I’ll be up at 5am to finish writing features and then travelling somewhere across England to a game, not getting home until midnight. But there are so many wonderful aspects to the job and it’s the life I chose. I never wanted to work 9-5 in an office!

I'd like to ask you about English football in general. There is no doubt that the Premier League teams are no longer as successfull in Europe as they used to be five years ago. What do you think is the reason for such a turn of events and is it going to change anytime soon?

- Teams have stopped paying attention to defending and organisation. At the top end, it’s because of the trend of chasing glamorous signings. For the rest of the league it’s because managers have worked out that it’s easier to stay up by having a team capable of scoring and winning matches – even if it also loses plenty – than it is to survive by being hard to beat and tactically organised. I think all this is a real shame because, for me, good football involves being good in all the departments of the game. Only Chelsea and Manchester City offer this at the moment.

If you could pick eleven players to your team who played at Old Trafford in the last 15 years who would you pick?

- 15 years? That’s a nice question because this is my 14th year of working in English football and covering Manchester United (I was in Scotland before).

Okay, the team would be:

Van Der Sar - Gary Neville, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra - Paul Scholes, Michael Carrick - Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs - Ruud Van Nistelrooy

The two main players to miss out here are Keane and Beckham. Both brilliant, but I didn’t see them in their primes. If it was a team of the last 20 years they’d be in, no question.

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