The dust may be settling on the season that was 2017-2018 for Manchester United and manager Jose Mourinho, but the post-mortem has only just begun.
Already, the focus has turned to which players Mourinho will bring in to bridge the gap on Manchester City next season but perhaps a summer of introspection will serve the manager just as well as any recruitment drive.
Without a trophy to show for its efforts, Manchester United finished its season on the most disappointing of notes – a 1-0 loss at Wembley against an underwhelming Chelsea side in the FA Cup final.
In many ways, the final reflected the season as a whole for the club; high expectations only matched by how far short the team would eventually fall of its mark.
Perhaps that is harsh when you consider the numbers.
Manchester United went from sixth in the Premier League to second, winning seven games more than it did the season prior and picking up an extra 12 points in the process.
Over 38 league games, United scored 14 more goals than the season prior and conceded one goal less, meaning that in every measureable aspect of the team’s Premier League performance there was improvement.
On top of that, the club qualified from the Champions League group stage for the first time since 2013, made another major cup final and picked up impressive wins over the top teams in the league, besting all of Manchester City, Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal during the season.
A disappointing Premier League season the year prior was glossed over by League Cup and Europa League triumphs, the latter of which guaranteed Champions League football.
With no trophy celebrations to end this season on a high note, the picture appears much bleaker at this season’s end than last, despite the obvious improvement.
However, in many ways, the loss to Chelsea told us more about this Manchester United team and its manager than all the numbers put together could.
It exposed a squad severely lacking in depth and perhaps even belief, and a manager seemingly unsure of his team’s strengths and weaknesses, how he wants that team to play and who failed to prepare his team for the loss of its main striker.
Since Romelu Lukaku was forced off injured against Arsenal at the end of April, United has looked lost in attack – seemingly completely unprepared for the eventuality that the Belgian might miss a run of games.
Mourinho’s own reaction to the 1-0 loss to Brighton, in which Marcus Rashford was expected to play the Lukaku role, told its own tale.
“Why always Lukaku? Now you see why,” he told reporters after the game. That’s a big problem.
Lukaku deserves to be United’s main man up front and he’s earned that right through some outstanding performances. He’s arguably been United’s best outfield player all season.
But injuries happen. And if Mourinho can’t cope without one player, then that betrays a big problem with his management and the tactical versatility of the squad he is trying to build.
Picking Ander Herrera to man-mark Eden Hazard was another odd selection.
The Spaniard is a jack of all trades, master of none type. Defending – in particular – is not the midfielder’s strongest skill set – either from the technical viewpoint of tackling nor the tactical element of positioning.
Man-marking a player is an exercise that requires utmost concentration and discipline. Park Ji-Sung, for instance, was a player who could fulfil such a role despite his obvious defensive deficiencies, simply because of his unnerving discipline and attention to detail.
Herrera, more known for his lung-busting running, eye for a pass and “fighting spirit” hardly fits that mould.
It took Herrera all of 20 minutes to lose his focus, when he went walk about on a typically unsuccessful attacking jaunt from United. If that’s the role Herrera was assigned, then he deserves his fair share of the blame – but equally it is Mourinho’s man to know the talents of the men at his disposal. Frankly, Herrera did not fit the bill.
Hazard saw his opportunity and pounced.
Of course, he was helped by the fact that Mourinho opted for Phil Jones and not the club’s best defender, Eric Bailly.
Jones showed a sign of things to come when he attempted to play a pass through a packed Chelsea midfield to the forward line early in the first half.
It was a small, but ominous, example of his horrible decision making and his lack of composure under pressure.
It’s no coincidence Hazard placed himself on Jones’ side of the defence once Herrera’s attention had turned elsewhere.
Jones’ comical hesitation and final, desperate lunge was typical of a player who has failed to deliver consistently for the club since he signed seven years ago.
Why Mourinho felt he was the man for the occasion as opposed to Bailly remains unclear, but it raises just one of several questions about the manager’s processes and style at Old Trafford.
In that way, perhaps the loss was a good thing for the club as a whole.
Unlike last season, there can be no delusions as to how much improvement still needs to be made to catch Manchester City.
That’s not to say United has not made any progress this season, or that 90 minutes should remove any due credit Mourinho deserves for his side’s improvement over the course of his management.
But if 90 minutes could make a sixth-place Premier League finish look a lot better than it was last season, then another 90 minutes can make a second place finish this time around look a lot worse than it was, too.
Compounding these issues is the apparently incessant spot fires that seem to be breaking out across the squad.
Bailly’s exclusion from the cup final squad is reportedly down to some sort of disharmony between himself and the manager, while Mourinho’s ongoing treatment of Luke Shaw has hardly been the finest example of man management.
Lukaku deeming himself fit enough only for a bench role instead of a start – with the World Cup supposedly on his mind – has also reportedly infuriated Mourinho.
Paul Pogba and the boss have been seen exchanging differing views on the pitch and Frenchman has even found himself benched as the two dispute his role in the team.
These examples will not fill any Manchester United supporter with an abundance of confidence moving into the new season.
In his defence, the squad he has still – in parts – resembles the failed hopes and dreams of the two managers who proceeded him. However, having bought in Bailly and Victor Lindelof in defence, Pogba and Nemanja Matic in midfield and Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez up front, it is an excuse wearing excruciatingly thin.
In any case, with no obvious candidates to replace him and with the team’s undoubted improvement, the Portuguese manager will deservedly get another crack next season.
Once again, the club and fans alike will be looking to massive transfer window as the potential catalyst for a first genuine title challenge since Sir Alex Ferguson retired as a Premier League champion in 2013.
The potential signings of Alex Sandro, Toby Alderweireild, Sergei Milinkovic-Savic offer plenty of food for thought and certainly would all make for significant improvements in their respective positions.
After several big signings over the last three years, one wonders if the promise of big spending and squad rebuilding is any better than a mirage in the dessert. The club always seems to deliver on the big spend to bring in big names, without ever really quenching the thirst for results.
As he approaches what will surely be his last chance, Mourinho will know that a genuine title challenge that lasts into May or, failing that, an extraordinary Champions League will be the absolute minimum requirement.
New signings will help, but perhaps sombre reflection on his own performance will go some way to bridging the rest of the gap between United and the Premier League champions.