Exclusive interview: Alan Smith on all things Manchester United

Exclusive interview: Alan Smith on all things Manchester United

Former Manchester United midfielder/forward, Alan Smith, recently sat down with The Irish Post to discuss various topics related to his former football club. Smith made 61 appearances for United between 2004 and 2007, and he is often remembered for his impactful goals against Roma in the 7-1 Champions League victory and the unfortunate leg break he suffered against Liverpool.

During the interview, Smith shared his insights on United's new signings, his perspective on what United needs to do to narrow the gap with Manchester City under the guidance of Erik Ten Hag, and also gave his thoughts on the future of United's former captain, Harry Maguire.

What United can do this year?

United, led by Ten Hag, finished third in the Premier League last year. After the signings of Andre Onana, Mason Mount, and Rasmus Højlund, the expectation is rising at Old Trafford.

Smith feels that Ten Hag's strict approach is starting to reap rewards, but stated top four is 'bare minimum' when the season gets underway this week.

"I feel they have done some good business over the summer," Smith said. "I think there is more to do in terms of both outgoing and incoming transfers, but I believe that one thing with the new manager is that people have really taken to him. They clearly understand what he's trying to accomplish, and that's a significant aspect for both the fans and the players.

"He seems really disciplined in the structure of how he approaches things, while also giving them flexibility and freedom to play."

"I believe there are certain signs that you can see, and it's possible they could be close," Smith added. "In my opinion, finishing in the top four should be the minimum requirement for this season.

"I am not sure how close they will get to Manchester City due to how well City has been performing. However, the start of the season is of utmost importance. If they begin well, you never know."

Mason Mount - Alan Smith's assessment

United's purchase of Mason Mount for £60 million in June from rivals Chelsea has raised a number of eyebrows in football, but Smith believes that Mount has the ability to become a star for United this year.

"It's a complex situation," Smith explained. "Under Frank Lampard, he was a regular player, but that suddenly changed last season.

"He appeared somewhat frustrated with not getting playing time, and I believe this move will provide him with a fresh start. Mount seems to be in great shape based on what I've seen in preseason. He appears highly motivated, and I feel that there is a strong core of new players that adds to the team's balance in midfield.

"With Bruno Fernandes and Casemiro bringing experience, Mason Mount fits in between them. Looking ahead, Mason Mount combines experience with youthful energy, which adds value to the team.

"Some argue that the team lacks sufficient goal-scoring capability, but if both Mount and Bruno perform well, it alleviates pressure on the front three, especially Marcus Rashford."

Smith on what Rasmus Højlund will bring to Manchester United?

Like Mount, Højlund, the Dane, has been signed for a hefty fee. The weight of expectation is enormous. Despite this, Smith believes that United's new forward will give Ten Hag more options up front and will also lighten the load on Rashford.

"The new signing, Rasmus Højlund, is another young player, but he is highly regarded by many," Smith said. "I believe he will offer a different option based on what I've observed. He seems a bit more physical.

"Compared to last year, United struggled without a traditional number 9, and Højlund might provide more than what they currently have."

Manchester United MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AUGUST 5: Manchester United new signing Rasmus Hojlund is unveiled before the pre-season friendly match between Manchester United and RC Lens at Old Trafford on August 5, 2023 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Smith on Harry Maguire staying or going?

Harry Maguire this week has been linked with a move to West Ham. The former United captain has become a maligned figure at the club and looks like he is on his way to London. Smith believes that Maguire could still do a job for United, but it will ultimately come down to what the player wants.

"It's a challenging situation because, as a manager, he would likely want to retain him," Smith stated. "Drawing a comparison to Arsenal's situation last year when they lost William Saliba, they faced the need for a replacement. Holding did reasonably well, but he wasn't a direct substitute. If you aim to compete across all four competitions, having four center-backs is crucial.

"With his experience, he could potentially rotate in and out of the team while maintaining consistency. In terms of confidence, it's tough for him, considering the criticism he has endured for a long time. However, he seems capable of handling it; some players possess thick skin and a desire to prove themselves. He's faced questions before.

"The manager might prefer to keep him. It will come down to whether Maguire wants to stay and demonstrate his value within the squad. Starting isn't guaranteed, but given United's busy schedule, he will get opportunities. Whether he remains or departs will likely hinge on the club's overall success."

Smith on Andre Onana's confidence

United's new goalkeeper, Andre Onana, has worked under Erik Ten Hag before and is seen as one of the best ball-playing goalkeepers in the world. Smith feels that the Cameroonian's confidence will be key for United this season.

"Based on what I've seen, he's a key player, especially from his performance in the Champions League final between Inter Milan and City," Smith observed. "He appears comfortable and almost acts like an extra defender. Given the manager's tactics, this quality is highly valued.

"Regarding the goal he conceded from the halfway line, his position was actually quite good, considering the circumstances. People tend to overemphasize the fact that he was lobbed from that distance, but analyzing the goal would reveal that it wasn't entirely his fault. His role was to receive the ball back and play it out, and the error occurred.

"His confidence is noticeable, a significant trait for someone who had to step into the shoes of David de Gea, a standout for United over the years. It's his personality and confidence that made him the standout choice to replace the Spaniard in goal."

Smith on Manchester United's youngsters under Ten Hag

United are well-known for bringing through youngsters at the club, and Smith feels that if Ten Hag deems they are ready, then he will give them game time next season

"I'm impressed by Hannibal," Smith shared. "He strikes me as an exceptional player based on what I've seen. He's likely going on loan. I'm uncertain about Mainoo's situation, whether he'll be loaned out or part of the main squad. Hannibal's time at Birmingham City probably contributed significantly to his growth, a trend we've observed more frequently.

"I've mentioned the reserve league we used to have, which was incredibly competitive. Now, the pathway to gaining competitive experience appears to be through the Championship, League One, and the like. It's about developing physicality, as that's a critical factor.

"I watched those youngsters during the friendly against Borussia Dortmund, and they impressed me throughout the first half. Despite being behind on the scoreboard, they played better. For these players, it's about proving their capability on big occasions and handling expectations. The talent is evident; what they need is the right mentality to deal with the demands of Old Trafford.

"The club values young players and those who play with genuine enthusiasm. I'm confident that if they are ready, the manager will have the courage to give them opportunities. Ten Hag's approach involves integrating young players and molding them into his philosophy. While it might not happen this year, there appears to be a plan for many of these young talents."

Smith on Manchester United's ideal signing to challenge for the Premier League title

United could have signed Jude Bellingham from Birmingham City in 2020, but he opted to move to Borussia Dortmund. Although Bellingham has now moved to Spain to join Real Madrid, Smith feels that he would have been a game-changer for his old club.

"I would have suggested Jude Bellingham if he hadn't joined Real Madrid," Smith commented. "As a midfielder, he's close to resembling a footballer like Steven Gerrard. He possesses a skill set that encompasses all aspects of midfield play. Casemiro's a phenomenal player, and if Bellingham had the chance to learn from him at Real Madrid, he could have developed into a complete footballer. If that opportunity had arisen, he would have been my choice."

Manchester United kick-off their Premier League campaign against Wolves on Aug 14.

Smith was speaking to The Irish Post via Gambling Zone