Reaction from yesterday’s FA Cup Final defeat.
The Story Of The Season
Back in September, a Phil Jones hiccup against Stoke City put the first blemish on United’s perfect start to the season.
Jose Mourinho had three choices to pick alongside Chris Smalling yesterday; Eric Bailly, the club’s best defender, Victor Lindelof, the Swedish centre-half who played so well against these very opponents in their last meeting, or Phil Jones, whose performance in the semi-final against Spurs must have been the argument that tipped in his favour in the manager’s mind. Certainly, he will have forgotten that Jones was party culpable for Alvaro Morata’s header at Stamford Bridge.
It doesn’t need me to point the finger at what went wrong because everyone can see that. It started with Ander Herrera’s momentary indiscipline to abandon his job. That’s all Eden Hazard needs.
It did not excuse Jones’ inexplicable decision to first back off the forward. It was fatal. In the end, Jones’ honesty was all that kept him on the pitch — and it’s a little of that sour taste that Hazard drew the foul rather than emphatically finish, calculating that his team would stand a better chance of winning against ten men than with an early goal — but it was the sort of mistake that cost United so many points this season.
It was that sort of mistake at Wembley against Spurs in the league that made a mockery of Mourinho starting with just two midfielders and underlines why he has to be pragmatic in providing a shield for a defence that, at its best, is prone to unpredictable cataclysmic errors.
Chelsea retreated and United were fairly toothless. The Blues were rattled a little by the presence of Romelu Lukaku but the truth was that even before the goal there were signs of United having too many ineffectual players. Jones had already made an error with a misplaced pass that invited danger. Pogba had shown a sign it would be a casual day when Fabregas ghosted past him. Rashford did what was asked but had an off-day. It wasn’t Lingard’s day, either.
Chelsea were deserved winners — more on that in a second — not in the traditional sense of being worthy victors, but more in the sense that United were worthy losers. The defeat was delivered in a manner which sums up their entire season.
But What Will People Say?
Jose Mourinho said, “I am quite curious to know what you say or what people write because if my team plays like Chelsea did, I can imagine what people would say. I am quite curious.”
Well, as someone who has been supportive of Mourinho, he does have to shoulder the responsibility of this one. Two years into his reign, and two and a half years after Jones’ and Smalling’s infamous horror show against Norwich City, it just seems inconceivable that United could start an FA Cup Final with them playing alongside each other.
This writer has defended Mourinho over the argument of resources in terms of how United have been expected to challenge City. But there is a valid argument to suggest the manager has not done the best with the resources he has and the FA Cup Final team selection underlines that.
United’s veteran full backs stands, somewhat, as an argument in the manager’s favour. Yes, he’s had time to resolve it — and he most definitely could have handled the Luke Shaw situation better, though the player is at least equally culpable — but he did need to sign a striker last summer, he did need to sign a central midfielder and did need to sign another centre half. So he could not find the £100m to spend on full backs. But he has bought two defenders and one and two years in, it should be expected that they would play in the important games. They didn’t and that’s a black mark against the manager.
Mourinho made another gamble but an understandable one. He picked Herrera to man-mark Hazard on the back of a) the Spaniard’s improved recent form and b) a game last season where he did that job well. That it went wrong is partly the player’s fault and partly the manager’s. Herrera, of course, was sent off at Stamford Bridge in the Cup game last season, so had shown himself just as capable of indiscipline. When people speak about him ‘getting’ the club that’s all well and good but it doesn’t mask or compensate for these errors. There is an argument to suggest that Herrera being ill-equipped for the role he was asked to do, but considering he had done so before, it was an understandable selection that most would have made. It just went horribly wrong.
It was clear, probably even before the penalty, that United’s chances of success would depend more on the players they could bring into the game, because the first eleven weren’t at the races. The penalty confirmed that changes were necessary. Mourinho must have had some impact at the break because there was some improvement but it was lowly incremental. He waited too long to make the changes.
Ultimately Mourinho was undone by Conte in almost exactly the same way that Mourinho outsmarted Klopp in February’s win over Liverpool. It was a game where one team set out to exploit the weakness of the other; the weakness exposed itself very early on, resulting in a lead that could be protected.
Mourinho critics, and there are plenty in United’s support, will call it poetic justice, that a club who he schooled in the art of defending locked him out yesterday in the way he was famed for.
Mourinho does have a point in what he asks. It is unlikely that Conte will be criticised for winning in the way he did. But this is the difference between managing Chelsea and managing Manchester United.
But really, does it matter if he has a point? Is that the question he should be asking after losing a Cup Final?
Manchester United have ended the campaign trophy-less and whilst that’s not a disaster, and there has been progress that can be clearly seen, there have been just as many indications that many of the problems inherited by the manager have yet to be solved.
Eighteen months ago, Jose Mourinho led a winter cull to dispose of some big signings, mostly from midfield.
It has now reached the point where United’s defence is in a critical condition. Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof must be given a chance but that means significant investment must be put in three positions. It looks like £40m could be going on Toby Alderwerield and £50-60m might go on Alex Sandro. How much would a right back cost? Surely that man has to be Fabinho of Monaco, who may not be the specialist Mourinho would prefer, but is just about the best available.
Funds can be raised from the sale of Darmian, Blind, Smalling, Jones, and maybe even Rojo and Shaw. No tears would be shed if all departed.
In midfield, maybe it’s time to get someone in with the skillset to do what Ander Herrera is asked to do. Fred is a name heavily linked; Fabinho’s utility purposes tick this box too. Michael Carrick’s passing ability has been missed and whilst not quite of the same standard, one looks at the availability of Jack Wilshere on a free transfer and cannot help but think he would make a very, very sensible addition.
Even with the likely sale of Anthony Martial (which could possibly offset the entire potential fee for Alex Sandro), United are lacking something in their front line. There are specific qualities missing; a player on the right who can cut in, a player who has a presence to command the attention of defenders in a way that Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard don’t. One would also like it if this player would be a threat at set pieces, both direct and in delivery, an asset United have sorely needed for years. If only such a world class player was available… well, Gareth Bale has motivated sellers, and Tottenham’s recent link to him has seen the player valued at just £44m. It is likely he would cost United more than that but the player’s recent return to form means he is surely worth the gamble.
Things rarely work out perfectly. But if Darmian, Blind, Jones, Shaw, Martial, and Herrera are sold, with Fellaini’s probable departure, then Alex Sandro, Alderwerield, Fabinho, Wilshere, Fred and Bale would represent a blockbuster summer. It is the stuff of Football Manager but this is the level of upgrade United need if they are to make genuine progress next year.