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Football Insights - Mikaël Silvestre

Football Insights - Mikaël Silvestre

Following a 3-1 beating at the hands of Arsenal, Manchester United's season is going from dad to worse with their loss at the Emirates effectively ending their chances of a top-four finish this season. Former United defender Mikaël Silvestre chats exclusively to Genting Casino about his career and United's problems this season.


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On Arsenal v Man United

 
What did you think of the match? Was the score a fair result?

It was a big game. I didn’t think the result reflected the match. There was a lot of controversy with the penalty that should have been given to United after Cedric handled the ball, Dalot had two great efforts, one hit the bar the other was a fantastic save from Ramsdale. I think United were unlucky not to come away with anything from the match. 

At the moment, Arsenal have the momentum and they got the result in the end. 

 
Both teams made quite a few mistakes at the back. How would you assess the performance of each team's defence?

The defences of both sides are being put under pressure in every match and are tested a lot with one vs one situations. United have conceded 9 goals in their last three matches, they are leaking too many goals. You can look at individual defenders, but I think the problem is collective across the team.

Therefore the task for the defenders and goalkeepers is much tougher than that of the players at LIverpool and City. When you watch the matches, you will see individual mistakes, but there is more to it than that. 

 
Varane had what looked a difficult game. Are you surprised that he has not met the high expectations many perhaps expected?

I think this season has been difficult for him, but he has also missed a lot of games due to injury. Whenever he has had a run of games in the team, we have seen the Varane that played so well for Real Madrid.

The Arsenal match was his first game after a long absence and he didn’t have the luck or the composure in his performance - it was shaky start for the entire defence after conceding another early goal, and away from home that makes getting a positive result even more difficult - he wasn’t at his best, but there are circumstances that contributed to that. 

 

You’re not worried about his United future?

No, not at all. He has what it takes to be the leader of the United defence. Individually, he is more than capable of stepping up and being one of the top defenders next season under the new manager. 

 
What have you made of Ben White - Arsenal’s record defensive signing - this season?

He had a difficult start. At the beginning of the season it took him a bit of time to settle. I think he has progressed well and he is trying to establish a partnership with Gabriel and that is something that will get better over the seasons at Arsenal.

It was a big money move. When you buy English players from fellow Premier League teams, you can expect to pay at least an extra £10 million pounds more than you would for a player from outside the league. I think it is a long-term project, so the fee is what it is and I think he can deliver for Arteta and Arsenal. 

 
You know the position of left back very well. What did you think of Tavares’ performance on Saturday?

There was fire in his legs and in his head! He has a great attacking mindset, but in terms of his decision making, he could have cost Arsenal and he was lucky to not be sent off. He needs to be a lot calmer, that's for sure, because decision making at this level with VAR and the speed of the English game, is even more important than when I played.

He has to learn fast and I’m sure that he would have looked at his performance, with the coaches at Arsenal, and seen what to improve. At the moment, there is no competition for the spot with Tierney absent through injury - the other option is Xhaka, but he is required in midfield - so, Nuno is a lucky boy and hopefully he can take advantage of the opportunity he has, but he has to learn fast because it is a crucial time for Arsenal and fullbacks are even more important for the overall performance of the team both offensively and defensively. Offensively, he has to participate a lot and act like a winger. Defensively, he has to be very good in the one on ones.

 

The turning point in the match was Bruno missing the penalty. Were you surprised that Ronaldo didn’t take it?

Not really because Bruno has been the penalty taker this season. Clearly it was decided before the game because there was no hesitation when the whistle was blown. It is one of those where it hit the post and instead of going in it goes out, which is unfortunate.

These decisive moments went against United in the match. We can’t blame Bruno (for missing the penalty) because he has been very good from penalties whilst playing for United. 

 
Maguire sat this one out following off the field events. What message do you have for the United captain after a difficult week off the pitch?

Football is first of all a game; its entertainment and it should be fun. There is no room for this type of behaviour. There is a war happening in Europe and we have these types of people bringing this type of behaviour to footballers? It should not happen.

It's very sad for football and it's worrying for Harry because at the end of the day he is just doing his job. I really condemn what happened to him. It is very bad. 

 
Following the result and with Tottenham drawing, do you think Arsenal can build momentum and finish in the top four?

I think the race is open and will remain open between Arsenal and Spurs until the end of the season. Arsenal is showing good signs and for sure the win against United will give them a lot of confidence, but we can see that it isn’t settled, especially with the young players they have and the balance of the side isn’t perfect. For me, it will be open until the end. 

 

If you’d have asked an Arsenal fan at the start of the season that the club would be challenging for the top four with 5 games to go, most of them would have laughed. Given where the club is now, and Champions League qualification is in Arsenal’s hands, would anything other than top four be considered a bad season? 

For sure they will be disappointed because they’ve made so much effort to get back into the Champions League after a long absence. We have to realise that the owners have stuck with Arteta and Edu (Technical Director).

The owners have been strong and have kept their heads because at points everything was going wrong and the season started badly. They will be disappointed if they don’t finish in the top four because secretly that was the objective for the season.

Whatever we see from the outside, any group of players that play for Arsenal will be aiming to get the club back into the Champions League. I think they will be in Europe next season, but it is too early to say in what competition. There is progress in the team and they are on the right path. 


Reactions

 
Scott McTominay was very critical of his teammates and the club overall saying “There's a whole load of problems in terms of players, staff, everything higher up,” while Jesse Lingard described the dressing room as a “disaster”. Could you ever imagine these things being said about United and what do you think when you hear this generation of players speaking so openly about the club like this?

It’s difficult because when I was at United, every year we challenged for the title and at Arsenal, we were always competitive. I’ve been in difficult situations as a player. When I played at Rennes, we fought for survival. At Werder Bremen, we had to also fight for survival.

In my career, I’ve never had any of my teammates assess a dressing room like this, so it must be really bad if a player - and it isn’t one player - comes out and says such things. There aren’t many positive vibes at United and, I’m not sure if this is due to the results or if there's a bad atmosphere affecting results.

It should be a concern for the entire club because if you don’t have a harmonious dressing room, you won’t achieve anything, that is the foundation and it needs to be addressed for next season, that’s for sure. 

 

Some of your former teammates have been quite critical about United this year. Rio Ferdinand said that United have been “worse” under Rangnick after he replaced Ole? Do you think that having an interim manager has contributed to a disharmony within the dressing room or is that an excuse? 

It’s easy to say these things now. When the change was made I think it was because the club didn’t believe that Ole could turn things around. When you bring in a manager in the middle of the season he has no time, no pre-season and none of the players that are there are his players. He has a limited amount of time coming in as the interim manager.

I think the task was gigantic and I don’t think that Ralf imagined the size of the task. I don’t think he would have thought that he was going to inherit a broken dressing room. After a few months in charge he is talking about open heart surgery. United is United but right now it is just the name, the fanbase and the history.

What we’re seeing on the pitch, the results, in the dressing room is nowhere near what it used to be and you have to go back to the foundations. For Ralf, the assessment is now complete. We are in April, but I think it would have been difficult for him to do any better because it takes time for a manager to get to know players and vice versa. 

I’m sorry, but if you know that your boss is not going to be there next season, human nature says that you won’t give 100%. You give 99, 98% and when you multiply this by the eleven that start and the twenty-five in the squad you lose games and you lose focus.

 

You mentioned his comment about the club needing open heart surgery. You rarely hear a manager making these types of comments - it was an honest assessment. Given that honesty, do you think that Ralf is the right guy to remain at the club in a consultancy role because he will try and change United for the better?  

Given the model of the club with the people in charge and with the new manager coming in and the power he will be given, to be honest I don’t see how it can work with Ralf staying at the club beyond the end of the season.

The best thing to happen would be an extremely confidential meeting between Erik and Ralf, which isn’t made public, where he delivers his honest assessment of the club. That would be beneficial for him and he could use Ralf’s assessment and his experience as interim manager to have a better understanding of what has been happening at United.

I think that will be Ralf’s best contribution. With what has been reported about Erik’s involvement in recruiting players, we would expect him to be the final decision maker when signing players. 

 

Does it make ten Hag’s job easier coming into the club without Ralf being there, a bit of a clean slate, apart from the confidential conversation you mentioned, where he steps away and lets him go for it? 

I think that is what should happen. United already have Richard Arnold (Executive Chairman), John Murtough (Sporting Director) and Darren Fletcher (Technical Director). They have people in place, you don’t need to add another layer which will add confusion.

As I said, I think they should have an honest, confidential conversation, but only between Ralf and Erik. 


On Manchester United This season

 
You lifted so many titles at United. As a former red that played with some United legends, players like Neville and Scholes that are often speaking about the club in their jobs as pundits, who are hurt by what is going on at the club, I wondered that given your history, after winning so many trophies at the club, how does it feel seeing United at this moment in time? 

I have the same feeling as these guys and the fans. It’s sad because it's a waste. The club has been criticised by some fans for not investing, but if you look at the transfer spend and wage bill, we can’t deny that the owners have not been supporting the managers over the years. Despite the investment, the results are not there.

The Premier League needs a strong Manchester United, and since 2013 United fans have been in agony. OK, last season we finished second, but the gap is massive and we know that in terms of the performances of the team, United are too far away from Manchester City and Liverpool. When we know the history of the club and the money that has been spent, it doesn’t add up and that is where the frustration is.

You want to see good football. You want to see good players. You want to see titles so you can celebrate. There is not much to be proud of at the moment and to celebrate. We all share this feeling of being hurt because we care. 

I think that these players, players that are born and bred at Manchester United, players who spent their entire careers at United, should be heard. They should work with the club and become consultants to help the club understand what they need and how these problems can be fixed because they’ve lived it. They’re part of the history of the club - they won the treble - they won so many titles.

They care about the club, that’s why they are so open about it and I understand why they are frustrated. They are not criticising for the sake of it. They are not happy about the situation and take no pleasure from what is happening, trust me.

If I was Erik ten Hag, I would call a few of these guys and invite them for a coffee - nothing formal, just a conversation with them to understand what United is about because you can go to the museum, you can speak to people at the club but speaking to the actual builders - the legends. Sit down with Sir Alex Ferguson and have a conversation, take as much insight as you can to make the job easier because managing Manchester United isn’t easy.

Erik will need to get the right results quickly and on top of that you need to re-establish what United is about - the DNA of the club. It is going to be difficult. It is not a one man job and I hope that Erik will be given the time to assess the situation properly before he starts thinking about recruitment and the season ahead. 

 

So you think that he should lean on some of these players to fully understand the DNA of United and possibly have them around the club? 

Yeah. All the top, top clubs in Europe have former players, and I’m not talking about one or two, they have former players at all levels - academy, youth groups, all the way up to top management, they have former players because they translate those values, they know what it takes.

They can recognise players that will fit into that DNA and the club’s overall objectives. It's common sense and it comes from their own experiences - they lived it - being in the dressing room they know what United’s values are and I think that this could only be beneficial instead of having these guys on the outside. If you want to embrace the United philosophy and history, I think you should connect with the people that have been through it. 

 
What would your message be to this group ahead of their remaining fixtures and how can they give something back to the fans before the season ends?

The players need to fight harder. If some of the individuals can’t give 90 minutes, then play 60 or 70 but with full commitment. They need to give more to the team.  

The players are a little bit worried about making mistakes and taking risks, but at this point they have nothing to lose so they should just give their all, individually and as a team.

We just saw the effort that Everton put in against Liverpool, that was a fight. The United players need to fight for every point that is left this season. There is no other way. It isn’t rocket science. Win your challenges, your duels and half of the job is done. 

The players need to provoke support with their performances. They need to actually deserve it. They have to repay the fan’s faith and support. The Arsenal game was much better in terms of body language and attitude.

Hopefully they can keep that momentum in terms of playing for each other and the pride of the badge. If they can show that at Old Trafford, and show that commitment, they will get the love back.

 

After the Liverpool defeat, he admitted the club need as many as ten new signings. Which areas in the team do you think the club has to recruit for most urgently? 

I think that Ralf was a little bit dramatic when he said the club needed ten players. Players that are out of contract will leave and Matic has said that he will leave in the summer.

Matic, Lingard and Pogba that's three from the midfield, so that's three players that will need to be replaced at least. I think it's the spine of the team that needs reinforcement. That is where the club will be focusing this summer. 


On The New Manager

 
We all know the candidates for the job that were rumoured to be on the shortlist, Mauricio Pochettino, Sevilla's Luis Enrique and Spain boss Julen Lopetegui, all managers with more top level experience, were you surprised by the appointment? 

I’m pleased because I hope that what I’m reading about him being a long-term appointment is true. I hope that he is given the time and the resources to rebuild.

Also he isn’t a massive name, and when Sir Alex joined the club as manager he wasn’t a big name. I hope that he can follow in Alex’s footsteps and Erik’s name is huge when he eventually leaves United.

That for me would be the best case scenario, it would be amazing. I believe his philosophy will please the fans if he can apply them. I think he has humility and I hope that everyone at the club understands that they have to be on the same level as him, showing humility and hard work before thinking about challenging for the title for the next two or three years. 

 
What is the biggest challenge you think he will face when he joins the club?

The biggest is to make the right signings. The first few signings will be super important because they will set the tone for what he wants to do and the direction that he wants to take.

That is going to be a challenge because he will have to go away from what everyone is looking at - the next superstar - because that is not what United need at the moment.

They need solid, competitive, loyal, intelligent players. Players who will put the team before themselves. They’ve already got superstars at United and there is enough talent in the team. Now, they need hard-working players. 

 

You mentioned his philosophy. Obviously, Ajax are a club that historically has played attacking football and are famous for playing in a certain way. During your time at United, your teams were very attacking, the crowd expected attacking football. Do you think he can bring that to United? 

I think he can do that. The big difference between the Premier League and the Dutch league is the speed of the game and the intensity. It’s down to player selection of course, but his philosophy should work at United. No doubt. 

 
It’s being reported that he would like to bring Steve McClaren in as his assistant. What do you think McClaren would bring and did you and your teammates enjoy working with him?

Personally I enjoyed his training sessions. He would often lead the training with Sir Alex taking more of a back seat and watching from a distance. I enjoyed working with Steve and I’m actually working with him at the moment with FIFA in a talent development programme, so we see each other and spend time with each other, which is fun.

You know that it goes back to what I was saying before, you want people at the club that understand it, who have the experience. People that were part of that successful era when United were dominant. Why not get him back?

 

When you saw him, did he discuss potentially going back to United? Did you ask him about it? 

No. I left him alone! I didn’t want to ask him this type of question. I was tempted! I was really tempted! 

 

Maybe you’ll go back to FIFA and ask, ‘where’s Steve?’ and he will be back at United? 

Yeah maybe (laughs).


On Cristiano Ronaldo

 
Your old teammate Ronaldo has had a good season personally. How important has he been for the club and do you think he will be there next season?

If he wasn’t there, I don’t see who would have stepped in. Cavani has been injured, Marcus hasn’t been himself, there wasn’t anyone else who could score goals at the club. Thank God we have him! United need to adapt to him, there is no other way.

We know he is not going to chase and run down the wings anymore. If you give him the service, look at the goal he scored against Arsenal, this was a pure strikers finish, he’s in between two defenders makes the run and reads the situation before the Arsenal players because he’s got the experience and he knows where to position himself to be on the end of the crosses.

You know next season, he needs to be the number one, if United sign another forward, that’s fine, but I wouldn't mind starting with Cristiano every game because he is not getting any younger.

He was an expensive signing but if you think of what he brings in revenues, he’s already paid for it! Business-wise, it was a great decision, on the pitch it’s a great decision.

He has twenty goals already, so I don’t know where those doubters were coming from. He’s done it everywhere. you think he can’t do it coming to the Premier League?

Of course he can. Those people who thought he would be taking on players one against one and beating four or five players before scoring a goal, no, not anymore. That part of his career is over and he’s changed his game to becoming a proper number 9. Cristiano is unbelievable. 


On Arsenal

 
How would you assess Mikel Arteta’s management of the club to date?

I was worried at points because of the results and his lack of experience in dealing with such adversity. He has to deal with the fans, the media and even your players can doubt you if the results are not there.

He has never been a manager before and he has never been through a situation like he did at the start of the season, beginning with such a catastrophic start after heavy investment.

The response to that was impressive. He showed resilience. That situation tested his character and his philosophy, he would have been asking questions of himself. I think his footballing career helped him through that period because as a player, you will go though patches where you are down and alone. As a manager that pressure is even more intense, so that helped him a lot.

He has stuck to his principles and plays the football he wants to play attacking football with a lot of combinations. The game against United was pleasant to watch (laughs) as a neutral (laughs). No, you know it's good, and I’m pleased for him and the club. 

 

There is a different connection between the team on the pitch and the fans in the stands that haven't been at the club in a very long time. Do you think that having happy fans has helped these players perform? 

100% it is massive. As players, when we are on the pitch, we have to focus on the game, the ball, the opponent, your teammates, you have to block out the fans, but they are still there.

They are there to push you, to motivate you. They are there in the good moments and in the bad moments, you can’t ignore them. That’s why when the games were played behind closed doors it was terrible and nobody enjoyed it. You can feel that The Emirates has a different vibe and the team is benefitting from this and they are getting results.

Even in the game on Saturday, if you don’t have those positive vibes, then perhaps the result is different. Maybe United get the first penalty, maybe Bruno scores the second one and Arsenal don’t score the three goals. It is a good moment for Arsenal. 

 

Arsenal have the youngest team in the league. Do you think they need to add some experienced players to push the club to the next level and if that is the case, how important is Champions League football going to be for Arsenal to attract these players?

Every summer you need to bring in fresh blood to challenge the players that are already there. You need to demonstrate to the players that as a club you are committed to improving otherwise you stagnate and go backwards.

At the highest level of football, you need to stimulate your players and as a player, you expect signings, good signings. For Arsenal, I think they should add one or two established players to build on what they have, but they have to be careful because they don’t want to block the development of Smith-Rowe, Saka, Odegaard.

I’m not sure what is happening with Nketiah and with Aubameyang leaving and Lacazette seemingly on his way out, I would think a forward should be a priority. 

 
Arsenal have William Saliba, who is performing very well on loan at Marseilles, do you expect Saliba to be playing for Arsenal next season? Should the Arsenal fans be excited about him?

If you look at Gabriel and Ben White, I think that should be the partnership for next season. If Saliba comes in, he will be a back-up. It is a difficult one because he will know that if he comes back to Arsenal, he will know that he won’t be the first choice.

He is still young and I would be tempted to give him another year on loan so he can become even more consistent. He has improved on this loan, but there have been some games where he wasn’t at his best level.

To develop and to become a big part of Arsenal for the future, if you put him on the bench after playing a full season for Marseille, that would be a backwards step in his development. They have to make a big decision on his future. 


On His Career

 

Do you have a particular highlight from your 9 years and 10 trophies at Old Trafford?

It has to be winning the Champions League. It’s funny because even though I didn’t play the final, I was on the bench, I tore my ACL in September and was back playing with the reserves in March and I fought my way back to fitness and into the team.

I managed to make the squad for the final and it was my tenth season in the Champions League, so as you can imagine, I was eager to win it! I had one season with Inter where I lost to United on the QF and then nine attempts with United to win it. It was a massive highlight for me. In club football, the Champions League is the biggest trophy.

 
How did it feel to join your old rivals Arsenal in 2008 given the battles the two teams faced during your time at United?

It was a new beginning and a challenge for me. As a player you need to step out of your comfort zone and continue to challenge yourself and for me, it was even more of a challenge because you're joining a club who were your biggest rivals.

I came from the other side! I felt welcomed by the manager, who I knew a little bit and of course there was a French connection with Gallas, Kolo, Eboue, Sagna, Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Alex Song. We had that French connection within the dressing room and I enjoyed it.

It was a good group of players and as a player you want to enjoy yourself on the pitch. There was a lot of competition in training with great players like Robin van Persie and Adebayor and we played some very good football. We didn’t finish on top, but we enjoyed ourselves. 

 
You played under Sir Alex and Wenger, one of three players to play under both. Obviously two legends in English football - how different were their managerial styles and what did they have in common?

Well, we couldn’t talk about their differences because we would need a day (laughs)! What they had in common was passion, commitment, knowledge and a work ethic and humility.

You know, they would treat everybody the same, from the groundsman, to the top player at the club. They would interact with these people the same way and, as a leader, that is a quality that you must have. They were able to inspire and motivate people around them just by being normal, empathetic and through the lives they lived that were dedicated to football. 

 
What were the differences in the dressing rooms you found at both clubs?

There was a big difference because at Arsenal there weren't any players that were from the local area - Islington, Highbury, London - none of them. The only one was Jack Wilshere, but he was seventeen. The rest were all foreigners and that is a big difference.

The Arsenal culture all came from Pat Rice, Arsene, obviously and other staff members. All of the players in the squad gave everything for the club, no doubt about that, but there wasn’t that identity which United had with Schloes, Neville’s, Brown, Nicky Butt, these Mancunians, you can’t have a stronger identity or connection than growing up in the city and working your way up from the academy, youth levels and then into the first team.

When you had the families coming into the players lounge after the game, you had to speak Mancunian (laughs)! At The Emirates, you speak French. That was the main difference. 

 

Do you think that the group of players at Arsenal that you joined, if they had a few more guys that were homegrown and knew the club inside and out, could that have helped see that group win a title or is that unfair? 

I think that is a bit unfair because there were only three experienced players in Manuel Almunia, William Gallas and myself. The rest of the players were quite young and there were better teams than us at that moment in the league. I don't think the identity or the nationality of the players was the issue, it was just a more international environment and there were more young players.

Youth has a good side and sometimes it can be your downfall, but I think looking at the amount of points that we got and the football that we played, we were a good side.

I know Patrice Evra said that it felt like he played against “children” (when playing for United against Arsenal), yeah the side was young, but you can’t have it both ways and that was the choice from the manager to not sign older players and he believed that these young players would grow up together and achieve a lot, but some of them lacked patience and left. 

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