London: Former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville has quickly become a well-respected English football pundit since hanging up his boots two-and-a-half years ago.
The consistent right-back has kept a keen eye on the Premier League and is well placed to judge what could happen in the coming season. Here he gives his views on new United boss David Moyes, Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea and Manchester City’s chances under Manuel Pellegrini.
What do you make of the season to come and, in particular, the challenge ahead for Moyes at Manchester United?
Gary Neville: We’re stepping into the unknown slightly. Going into a new season you think of Sir Alex Ferguson and automatically think Manchester United will be up there. A Jos Mourinho team will be there or thereabouts, always. But we’re actually going into a campaign for the first time in a long time where we’re not quite sure what’s going to happen: how everyone’s going to react to new manager, to new squads, to new signings.
Obviously, the changes of management at the top three clubs catch the eye and everyone will look, in particular, at United because Manchester City and Chelsea have changed the man at the top regularly in the last few years. It’s something new for United, so the focus will inevitably be on David Moyes.
It’s still early days, and this is a settling in period, but it’s also a critical period for any new manager. The good thing for Moyes is that he has started work on the first day of pre-season. Managers sometimes get appointed later, when the games have already started, but he has enough time in these next six weeks to really understand his squad.
Moyes is a managerial coach, in that he is active on the training pitch. He gets involved with his players. He wants to do a lot of the coaching himself and so they will be starting to understand him already. He’s an experienced manager who’s earned this opportunity and he’s got a fantastic group of players who know how to win.
Does he need to bring someone in, potentially in midfield?
Last year Michael Carrick was outstanding, playing virtually every game. Paul Scholes may have gone but Tom Cleverley played well in there, and they have Anderson, Ryan Giggs still there. What Sir Alex Ferguson was great at was sitting back and saying to himself: ‘OK, if I buy a couple of midfield players, what about Tom Cleverley? I need to get Phil Jones into my team so, if Rafael is playing right-back, I’ve got [Nemanja] Vidic, [Rio] Ferdinand, [Chris] Smalling and [Jonny] Evans at the back, where am I going to get him a game?’
You always have to weigh up the damage it does to your squad to sign players unnecessarily. In saying that, I’m pretty certain it’s an area Moyes will look at because of the retirement of Scholes and the heavy reliance upon Carrick. A couple of injuries and he would look very light in there.
Can Wayne Rooney win over the fans again and flourish still at Old Trafford?
I was on the pitch at the end of last season when live on air the boss announced Wayne had asked to leave. We were all surprised at the time, everyone was, but I am always hopeful. Wayne Rooney and Manchester United go together. I’m aware of how big the football club is, and the fact you can achieve all your ambitions there. But Wayne is ambitious himself. He has to make his own mind up. There have been rumblings about Wayne but he has come back into pre-season without much of a fuss, and this will unfold in the next few weeks.
The fans have been through this before, many times, and you have to understand: it is not unusual, if you go through a long period of your career, that you have moments of doubt or feel you might want to work for someone else. But then things settle down a bit.
I think the fans will be fine with him. They get behind the players on the pitch. In 26 years I’ve not seen a United player treated badly by United fans. They love their own, particularly the ones who have served them well and given their all, and Wayne can certainly put himself in that category.
He has been too good a player, a great player for Manchester United for the fans not to accept him. Obviously, they want players to be committed to the club, but one thing about Wayne Rooney is, wherever he plays his football and whatever is going on, he is always 100 per cent committed to what he does.
What impact can Jose Mourinho have at Chelsea second time round?
He has a greater challenge this time round. We played against them on the first day in 2004-05 and had the experience the year before when he’d charged down the touchline at Old Trafford and gone on to pick up the European Cup with Porto. He’d already made a name for himself. But that first season he had an absolutely brilliant team at Chelsea: Arjen Robben, Damien Duff, Didier Drogba, Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard, John Terry, William Gallas, Paulo Ferreira. When you can name a team, you know it’s a great team. That side had power, strength, and were so difficult to play against.
He inherited a few of those players, but he built a fantastic side. That period, 2004 to 2007, was the leanest United had endured since Sir Alex won his first title and Mourinho had a big part to play in that. At United we weren’t slow starters particularly, but we generally weren’t at our peak from September to December and, in those Mourinho years, we’d fall too far behind them to mount a challenge when we did get into our stride in the new year. The critical thing is to be in contention at the turn of the year because you don’t want to fall too far behind a Mourinho team. They have the nerve inside the club to withstand the pressure.
The situation’s different for him now, but Chelsea are on the up. Everyone could see that at the end of last season. They’d won the Champions League the year before, and won the Europa League last season, finished strongly in the league They’re going to be a huge threat this season.
Where next for Manchester City?
Not many people are talking about them at this stage, which is dangerous because they under-performed last year. Look at where they’d been at the end of the previous season that just shows they under-performed last time. If they can get the likes of Sergio Aguero hitting their top form again they’ll be really strong. They’ve obviously signed a few players already Fernandinho signing for City is a big move and will be there. Everyone’s looking at Mourinho, everyone’s looking at Moyes, but City are probably sitting there thinking: “We’re OK at this moment in time. We’re out of the limelight.”
Have you been surprised by anything in the build-up to the new season?
Probably only that the big clubs haven’t done their transfer business early. City have signed a few, and Chelsea have done a little bit, but when you think what Bayern Munich did signing Mario Goetze before the end of the season it’s not been as busy as I’d have envisaged. I thought Arsenal would have gone big and early. The noises coming out of the club are that they’re going to try and spend bigger than they have done and we’re still waiting.
It’s all waiting for that domino effect to kick in, for the one big player to move and the rest to fall into place. But you’ve got Monaco and PSG coming to the fore, blowing people out of the water, which is setting one or two of our clubs back a bit in terms of aspirations.
Similarly, how critical for Liverpool is keeping hold of Luis Suarez?
Losing him would be a huge blow. It’s critical they keep him. The goals he scored last year and his performance level, rather up to the time he was suspended, were fantastic. He was well in contention to be player of the year. You never know who Liverpool might have backed up to replace him should he go but, if they’ve got aspirations of finishing in the Champions League places, they need to keep him. It would be a message. Keeping him is to say: “We want to get back in the Champions League.”
— Guardian News & Media Ltd