On paper at least, FA Cup matches don’t come much trickier than this. Reading head north on Saturday night to face a Manchester United who sit fourth in the table, are on red-hot form and are still competing in four tournaments: the Premier League, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the Europa League.
Key to that has been Erik Ten Hag, who’s rejuvenated the Red Devils since taking over as manager last summer. He actually could have been in the Reading dugout at one stage, having been in the running to replace Brian McDermott - with compatriot Jaap Stam ultimately getting the nod instead.
We talked about Ten Hag and much more in a pre-match chat with Manchester United fan Sam. You can find him on Twitter @SibsMUFC.
It’s Man United vs Reading in the FA Cup for the THIRD time in the last decade. How did you react to the draw?
Whenever there’s a cup draw I always hope that we are drawn away, so this season has been frustrating with home draw after home draw. Even having the tie in Reading would’ve made a big difference!
I think it’s fair to say both of us would’ve preferred to draw someone else as we’ve seen plenty of each other in recent years and part of the appeal of cup competitions is getting to face teams that you wouldn’t normally get to play. The circumstances behind the game such as the poor kick-off time and high ticket prices haven’t helped matters either. I wasn’t surprised to see Reading pass up on their full allocation. As is often the case, match-going supporters are an afterthought.
How would you sum up your season so far?
Exceeding expectations, especially after the first two games! This was always expected to be a transitional season for us but Erik Ten Hag has put his stamp on our team much quicker than many of us anticipated. There is a real belief and resilience in this team that has not existed since Sir Alex Ferguson left. You can feel it amongst supporters too that after a decade of searching, we have finally found our man. If he is backed I am confident he will succeed.
I’m very happy with the job he is doing so far; the team has made enormous progress in a short space of time, shifting to a possession-based style of play. He is adapting to the players he has available to him; most of his new signings have settled in well and we have seen many players who disappointed last season really kick on and progress - Marcus Rashford and Diogo Dalot in particular.
We are still competing on all four fronts and have had some memorable wins in the big games, especially Liverpool and Manchester City who have so often outclassed us in recent years. Although there is the occasional game that reminds us we are still a work in progress, such as Arsenal at the weekend, the general consensus is we are heading in the right direction.
How important is it for United to pick up some silverware this season?
Very. Erik Ten Hag said it himself: it has been too long since Manchester United won a trophy. For a club of our size and resources, with the amount of money we’ve spent and the players we have in our squad, six years without silverware is not good enough.
The best chance is via the domestic cups, especially the League Cup where we have one foot in the final already. The momentum winning it would give us cannot be understated. There’s a good reason why top managers like Ferguson, Mourinho and Pep always took it seriously.
What kind of reception do you think former Man United player Paul Ince will get?
It’s a bit of a recurring theme with ex-United players returning to Old Trafford as Reading manager isn’t it? Steve Coppell, Jaap Stam, Paul Ince...
I’m far too young to remember Ince in a United shirt, but I’ve heard many good things about his time at the club and the pivotal role “The Guvnor” played in helping us establish ourselves as the dominant team in English football in the early 90s. Older Reds have not forgotten his contribution; even if the Liverpool connection does sour his reputation with some, it won’t have any impact on the reception he’ll get. He will be welcomed back just like Coppell and Stam were.
What are the main strengths and weaknesses of this United side?
Casemiro is by far our most important player. For many years United have lacked a player of his mould. He has made a huge difference to the team and was badly missed against Arsenal. It’s no coincidence that, of our five league defeats this season, he hasn’t started in four of them.
He covers so much ground and offers a shield in front of the defence that we haven’t had in years, whilst being able to drop back and progress the ball forward quickly once we win it back. His control of the midfield also allows others such as Christian Eriksen to push higher up the pitch.
Marcus Rashford is back to his best this season - our only forward who is a consistent goal threat, the focal point of our attack and looking a more well rounded player. He is stronger, his technique has improved and in the past he had a tendency to shoot when passing was a better option; now he has become much better at bringing others into play. At this point it’s a surprise when he doesn’t score. We are in big trouble if he gets injured.
Unfortunately Rashford’s keen eye for goal is not replicated amongst our other attackers. We have struggled to take our chances all season. Jadon Sancho has faded after a bright start, Antony is yet to justify the fee we paid for him whilst Anthony Martial is beginning to rival Phil Jones for the amount of time spent on the treatment table. United require someone else to step up and chip in with a few goals. Wout Weghorst is not a glamour signing but he is a needed one.
We also have poor squad depth resulting from years of mismanagement and appalling boardroom decisions. The drop-off in quality from the first XI to the squad players is enormous, with too many players on big contracts who we can’t get rid of or those who aren’t suited for our style of play. There will be a lot of outgoings in the summer.
What XI do you think Erik Ten Hag will put out?
We are in the middle of a horrendous fixture pile-up so Ten Hag will rotate. After our result against Nottingham Forest I think we’ll go a bit stronger for this game than we would have if the tie were in the balance.
Heaton; Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Lindelof, Shaw; McTominay, Fred; Pellistri, Fernandes, Garnacho; Weghorst (4-2-3-1)
With Sancho back in training I also expect this to be his return off the bench.
How do you see the game going and what will the score be?
It’s hard to say too much as I’ve not watched much of Reading this season! We have been strong at home and I expect us to win the game, however I can see it panning out in much the same way the Charlton game did. Grab an early goal, dominate the possession but struggling to take our chances and kill the game off. I’m going for 2-0.