The Season In Review
“The last time Manchester United won the Champions League, which didn’t happen a lot of times, was in 2008. The [last] final was 2011. Since 2011: 2012 out in the group phase - the group was almost the same group as we had this season: Benfica, Basel and Galati from Romania. Out in the group phase; in 2013, out at Old Trafford in the last sixteen - I was in the other bench; in 2014, out in the quarter-final; in 2015, no European football; in 2016, comes back to European football, out in the group phase, goes to Europa League and on the second knockout out, out of Europa League; on 2017, play Europa League, win Europa League with me and goes back to Champions League; in 2018, win the group phase with 15 points in possible 18 and loses at home the last sixteen. So, in seven years with four different managers, once not qualified for Europe, twice out in the group phase and the best was a quarter-final.”
-José Mourinho; March 16, 2018
“I know how to win titles, in case some of the new guys don’t know, I won eight championships in four different countries and three in this country. I know why you win and I know why you don’t win.”
–José Mourinho; April 19, 2018
“For ten months, the media ask me ‘why always Lukaku?,’ ‘why always Lukaku?’, ‘why always Lukaku?’, ‘why always this player?’, ‘why always this player?’, ‘Oh, poor That Guy, doesn’t have a chance to start.’ ‘Oh poor The Other One, he’s always on the bench.’ You know why now.”
–José Mourinho; May 4, 2018
To say this season has not gone to plan for José Mourinho and Manchester United is an understatement. Of late, the Portuguese has been making sure that everyone knows this is not his fault: the blame lies with his players and their inflated egos which have meant Man Utd coming up short. Well, that and the awesome power of Manchester City – a side Mourinho has said it could be “impossible” to stop.
Since Pep Guardiola’s side have been confirmed as Premier League champions, Mourinho has been on the defensive, reminding anyone who’ll put a microphone in front of him exactly how many trophies he’s won over the years. His players have been notably silent, while Red Devils’ fans are simply tired of all the graceless bitching and the drab, uninspired fare on show at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, away from the Man Utd circus, football continues to evolve and leave Mourinho behind – indeed, one senses that The Artist Formerly Known As The Special One is further into his Wenger-at-the-Emirates era than he would ever like to admit.
It’s true that his tried-and-tested smash-and-grab tactics have won Man Utd important battles over the course of this season – playing less-than-expansive football, they beat every Premier League team they played this season, downing media favourites Tottenham and Liverpool at Old Trafford and beating Arsenal at the Emirates and Man City at the Etihad – but Mourinho’s ideas no longer seem capable of winning wars. He remains an expert at setting up an ambush, spoiling a one-off game and stymying more fancied opponents, but the point remains that such ideas are not befitting of clubs of Man Utd’s stature. He stands accused, justly, of throwing away the initiative and making sure his elite players go out unable to perform to their maximum potential.
Thus, this has been a season in which Man Utd have been better than all-but-one team in the Premier League, but so far behind that team that the press and the fans are genuinely exasperated and offended. Many of United’s individual players are evidently brilliant, but they’re playing within themselves and instead of helping them get better, Mourinho simply blames them for letting him down.
Yes, Man Utd finished second, which is no bad thing, and their points total is respectable if not inspiring, but the quality of their football has been turgid and they’ve failed to beat some of the division’s worst teams in hugely uneven contests. The nadir was the embarrassing home defeat to West Brom, led by a caretaker manager and without an away win since August. That defeat handed Man City the title, but it also underscored just how far behind City this United team now are: there’s no way we can imagine Guardiola leading his team to such a meek collapse to such poor opposition when three points are so desperately needed.
On the European front, United fared little better. Their Champions League campaign only served to confirm that, even after the colossal investment of the post-Ferguson years, United’s squad is short of quality in certain areas and, more worryingly, relevant tactical ideas. Their uberdefensive gameplan in both legs against Sevilla was pitiful and became the primary reason for their elimination. While parking the bus and shutting down the game may have worked for Mourinho against the relatively naïve tacticians of Europe in 2004, it’s genuinely a terrible idea in 2018.
So while Mourinho may decide to burn his bridges with several of his squad’s most promising players and pick public fights with his more established star players, the truth is it’s basically all his fault – and he’s the only one who’s saying otherwise.
The Summer Ahead
Mourinho and the media alike will demand colossal investment and an explosive performance in the summer transfer window. As ever, United have been linked with just about every big name on the planet and a host of Jorge Mendes/Mino Raiola clients. One wonders exactly how much surgery is needed, though.
David De Gea is among the best goalkeepers in the world. Romelu Lukaku is among the best finishers in the Premier League, regardless of his less-than-Messi-like goalscoring and not-always-perfect first touch. Alexis Sánchez, predictably dreadful as he has been at United, has been there and done it all. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are among the most promising and electrifying attackers in world football but they’re still young and have the occasional off-day, so they routinely get benched and may well end up falling out with Mourinho and forcing a move. Paul Pogba is a sensational midfielder capable of doing absolutely anything, and one suspects a manager like Guardiola would get much more out of him than Mourinho. Eric Bailly is a top centre-back coming into his prime and Luke Shaw was, not that long ago, one of the best young wing-backs in world football. In Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young, Mourinho has a couple of full-backs and experienced professionals he has described as perfect for his team.
That doesn’t sound like a club in major need of an overhaul, yet here we are.
This summer should see the last of the Louis Van Gaal players jettisoned – Martial included, for some reason – and more 28 year-old sh*thouse Mourinho types brought in. Toby Alderweireld is apparently close to signing from Tottenham, while they will surely look for at least one new full-back and a Martial replacement to boot. One could question the wisdom of selling off the future to gamble on the present, but this is Mourinho we’re talking about – the Chelsea careers of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne and Mo Salah tell us all we need to know.
It’s not like Mourinho will be around for much longer anyway: next season will take him to three in charge of United, which means that very soon all hell is going to break loose and he’ll be booted out, with Old Trafford in flames and the fanbase close to civil war.
This is a big game and we know what Mourinho does in big games. We should expect yet another bus-parking exercise here, with a very deep, defensive 4-3-3 showing all the zest and spark of a sloth after a heavy Thanksgiving meal and several beers.
Mourinho will name his very tallest and strongest players. His wide players will be selected with one eye on their defensive capabilities, so we should expect Jesse Lingard to mark Marcos Alonso and Alexis Sánchez will track Victor Moses. Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matić will do the defensive legwork for Paul Pogba and block the passing channels to Eden Hazard and Willian.
In attack, Pogba and Sánchez will be tasked with creating something from nothing, while Jesse Lingard’s direct running providing an alternative to long balls to Lukaku, of which there will still be many. Above all, Mourinho will be hoping to keep a clean sheet and praying that a defensive slip-up or some manner of anti-Conte protest from the Chelsea defenders hands Man Utd victory.
In case we need reminding, United’s combination of ludicrous talent and formidable organisation makes them one of the Premier League’s stand-out teams. They are second in the table and have beaten every Premier League team they’ve played this season. Chelsea have already beaten United at Stamford Bridge, but they also lost to them at Old Trafford having gone ahead.
Even though their showings in recent months have been varying degrees of frustrating, United have generally produced dominant performances and won when they’ve been supposed to. On top of that they’ve been ruthless in both boxes: their conversion rate is up there with the Premier League’s finest, and David De Gea’s outrageous save rate is easily the division’s best. Their Expected Goals ratio is the lowest of the Big Six, but easily better than the Expected Goals ratios of the Other Fourteen.
In a basic battle of individual talent, it’s hard to bet against Man Utd: any club that can call on De Gea, Pogba, Sánchez, Martial, Rashford and Lukaku will generally win games. Mourinho is on the wane as an elite manager, but he remains indubitably an elite manager.
As previously stated, there are long-term worries that Mourinho may be about to torch everything around him; that Pogba is simultaneously too important to their attack and too irresponsible positionally to trust in big games; that Alexis is past it; that the full-back situation isn’t quite satisfactory; that their tactics are outdated. These problems can give hope to any side facing them: let’s remember that United lost to Huddersfield, Newcastle, West Brom and Brighton this season.
Most relevant here is Mourinho’s now infamous and tiresome caution in high-pressure games. Even though results continue to be more positive than howling, outraged coverage and social media reaction suggests, the obvious worry for United fans is that the Portuguese will yet again play things far too safe and, instead of sucking his opposition into a bad position and creating space for his attackers to exploit on the break, as he believes he is doing, will simply end up parking the bus and handing the game to the opposition. Their meek, gutless performances in defeats to Manchester City, Tottenham and Sevilla will live long in the memory, and every big game is now a potential ordeal for United fans.
It’s the FA Cup Final.
Both teams will play their strongest possible elevens.
One wonders whether each manager secretly wants to lose and get sacked – or not so secretly, in Antonio Conte’s case. Both sides have been playing terribly of late and losing way more than they should and neither boss is on the best of terms with their squads. With more potential big name farewells in store for Chelsea, there’s every reason to back the likes of Conte, Courtois and Hazard to give Blues fans one last happy memory. Lest we forget, however, this is Chelsea: every managerial era has to end in embarrassment, acrimony and anger. Man Utd 2-1 Chelsea.