Interview: Gabriele Marcotti

Here is an exclusive interview with journalist Gabriele Marcotti. He writes regularly for both The Times and Sports Illustrated, and is also a pundit for ITV’s Champions League highlights.

Why did you decide to go into sport journalism?

As a kid, I always loved sports and I always loved journalism. I played football and rugby (enjoyed football more, achieved more in rugby). It never really occurred to me to get into sports journalism, my dream was to write serious long-form journalism, of the kind you might read in Vanity Fair or the New Yorker.  But I moved to London after graduate school, around the same time that Vialli, Di Matteo, Ravanelli and, later, Zola, came to the Premier League and there were opportunities writing about football since I’m bilingual. I guess I was in the write place at the right time.

You’re a season ticket holder at Stamford Bridge, but I understand when you were young you supported Inter? Why the change of team?

It’s not really a change of team. I was an Inter fan growing up and, to me, being a fan means loving everything about your club and disliking your rivals. Well, when you’re in this job, you discover that maybe your club has some pretty nasty people on it and, maybe, your rival has some really good guys who you admire and respect. At that point, it’s hard to be a fan.  You just don’t get the same kick out of it.  But you do get enjoyment from seeing people you admire do well, regardless of what club they play for. I guess it’s the price you pay for being in this line of work. I know some journalists who are fans and I’m not sure how they balance the two.  I know I could not do it.

When I was in high school in London between 1989 and 1991 started going to Stamford Bridge with my friends, because Chelsea was our local club. You paid £5 and you could stand and watch the game. After that, we all went to university and, when we returned to London we all started going again. It’s more of a social activity. I do have a season ticket at Stamford Bridge, but, when Chelsea are away, I’m  usually at the Emirates to watch Arsenal (or, occasionally, at Craven Cottage to watch Fulham). Because I’m usually not writing on deadline at the weekend, I prefer to go as a fan, whether it’s at the Emirates or at Stamford Bridge. Not only is the game more enjoyable than sitting in the press box, I always find it interesting to hear what supporters think and say.

So, Manchester United’s first half of the season hasn’t gone as well as planned has it? Why is that?

Well, there are plenty of reasons. The injuries have a lot to do with it, especially at the back. I’m a big fan of Rio Ferdinand and, even when he’s been fit, he’s been far from himself. Ferdinand’s pace and ability to read the game simply make the guys around him better, more relaxed, it gives them more time. I think that has had a big effect.

I also think there has been a bit of a fundamental tactical misconception. If you’re going to play Wayne Rooney as a centre forward (and, personally, I thought he was fine in the role he had last year, I didn’t really see a reason for him to be played more centrally) you can either do it in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3.  If you use a a 4-4-2, it makes sense, because you can stick Berbatov alongside Rooney.

But you need two quality wingers.  United’s wingers are Valencia (who’s fine), Nani (who, I think, is regressing), Park (who’s good in certain spots but is not a week in, week out player IMHO), Obertan (who’s a kid) and Tosic (who is MIA).  Plus, Giggs, although, given his age, against many opponents Sir Alex likes to use him centrally. Given that Sir Alex likes to rotate more than most, the lack of depth is, IMHO, a problem.

Playing 4-3-3 in some ways would make more sense. United used it a lot last season, there are plenty of good central midfielders (Fletcher, Carrick, Anderson, Scholes, Gibson, Giggs can play there too). The problem is that it still requires two wide men and it means not playing Berbatov (if Rooney is your centerforward). So your depriving yourself of a 30m striker and you still have a bit of a winger problem. One solution could be playing Rooney and Valencia wide with Berbatov down the middle. But, as I said, Sir Alex seems determined to play Rooney centrally, so that’s out.

A third factor is pretty basic, but still obvious. Tevez brought much more to table than Owen. And Ronaldo, of course, is a far better player than Valencia. The new guys are not as good as those they replaced.

Finally, based on what a United scout told me, the club really expected Anderson and Nani to be further along in terms of development at this stage.

Would we see an improvement in this half of the season?

You can’t help but see an improvement if the injured guys return, in particular Ferdinand. But also just having Evans, Brown and O’Shea fit will be a big help. With a solid defense, United’s front men will have more opportunities to get goals. I’m not sure though it will be enough if other teams strengthen as well.

Sir Alex isn’t planning to spend in January, but if you were the manager and wanted to spend in the summer window, who would you sign?

What you do in the summer will, I think, depend on your assessment of the squad in the second half of the season.  You need to make some tough decisions:

– Are Kusczak or Foster long-term solutions in goal? If no – and right now it’s looking like no, then you need a goalkeeper.
– Can Rafael make the rightback position his own? If he can’t, I’d look for a rightback. Even if he impresses, I’d try to sign a young one to keep some pressure on him. Fact is, you won’t be able to rely on Neville much longer and it’s best to keep Brown and O’Shea as cover rather than starters.
– Central midfield is OK, unless you think Gibson won’t develop and you decide to give up on Anderson. (Which would be wrong right now, IMHO).
– A top-drawer winger is a must. Even if Nani turns it around (and I doubt he will), you still need an option there.
– Another striker might come in handy as well, though that will depend on your assessment of Owen and Berbatov and the development of Macheda and Welbeck. I think a big man would make sense and, maybe, if Mame Biram Diouf lives up to the billing you won’t need one.

– Finally you need to make a tough choice in central defence.  How much does Vidic want to stay? He’s 28, Sir Alex has shown a knack for cashing in on players at the peak of their careers (Beckham, Van Nistelrooy). If the price is right, it might make sense to let him go, but only if you have an alternative. Also, much will depend on what condition Ferdinand is in. I have a lot of faith in Evans that he can fill one central defender spot long-term, but, obviously, if Vidic wants to go and Ferdinand’s health is still questionable, you’ll want another centreback.

Who do you see as Sir Alex Ferguson’s future successor?

Wow, this is a tough one. My understanding from the time I’ve spent with Sir Alex is that he has created a system and an organization at Old Trafford that works well even without his constant, day-to-day oversight. He’s a bit more removed than he was and delegates more to his staff. With that in mind, I would look for somebody who can “run” Sir Alex’s system (in terms of scouting, contracts, training, etc.) and basically tweak things and supervise, rather than bringing in a manager who will do things his way and make radical changes (like, say, Mourinho).  No matter who comes in, it will be a very difficult job, so doing so with minimal disruption might make sense.  Especially because you don’t want to undo all the great work Sir Alex and his staff have done.

A tough tie awaits United as they face AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League. Who would you single out as the players to look out for?

Well, there are plenty of familiar faces in the Milan side: Andrea Pirlo, Ronaldinho, Rino Gattuso and that chap David Beckham too…I’ll point out some guys who have been playing well and may not be as familiar. Pato has not had the best season up front, but he is an outstanding striker. He’s still just twenty years old, but he’s fast, tricky and is actually very good in the air.  He’ll be superstar, no doubt about it, but, as I said, he’s not having a great year.

Borriello is a busy, workhorse striker who can be a handful as a centerforward.  Not much in terms of ability, but he holds the ball up well and does a lot of the grunt work for the old guys around him. In defence, Thiago Silva is an outstanding central defender IMHO and he forms a very good partnership with Alessandro Nesta, who’s back after missing nearly all of last year through injury.

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2 responses to “Interview: Gabriele Marcotti”

  1. Hakan says :

    Great work, Gaffer!

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