Reaction from yesterday’s semi-final win over Tottenham.
Jose Mourinho commented on a pre-match text message he received from Ed Woodward, assuring him of the progress he’d seen win or lose. United are now in an FA Cup Final, opponents yet unknown. So, win or lose, how does second place (as seems likely) and an FA Cup Final appearance, represent how the club have moved on in the second season under their new manager?
Well, two trophies last season indicated that a serious push at the title was necessary this time around. But all things must be relative. If United should be expected to be above the likes of Liverpool and Tottenham due to their resources then they should also expect to be behind a club who have spent £270m in a single season on a squad that was already stronger than their own.
Naysayers say that the difference in money spent by Guardiola and Mourinho – £140m – doesn’t represent the difference in the sides this season. If the inference is that such a figure is inconsequential in today’s football then perhaps it should be taken into account that the same figure accounts, roughly, for each year of Mourinho’s annual expenditure at United. By the same reckoning United’s investment is inconsequential and that is blatantly untrue.
Through a mixture of spending and good management, United — while still capable of performances like West Brom — have progressed in almost every measurable capacity from being sixth or seventh to a clear second best in the league.
Mourinho will know that becoming the best does not mean matching City’s spending this summer. It will come in addressing the internal flaws that make games like last Sunday possible and all the evidence suggests that he will do so.
Out of style
So let’s continue to give the boss credit. In recent big games there has been the suggestion that Jose Mourinho is adhering more to the club’s standards (the Sevilla game aside). Or, then again, is he, or is this just what we are conditioned to believe by the press?
Going back in time there was yesterday, there was the Manchester City comeback, there was the Chelsea game too, all games won by United where it should fairly be said that Mourinho’s team played (or than played) their part in an entertaining game of football. In each of those games, Paul Pogba has shone. He was absent for a long stretch of the season, including games at Anfield and Stamford Bridge and the home game against Spurs. He was present at Arsenal where he was again the best player in a match that was almost perfectly managed by Mourinho.
The home game against Liverpool — missing Pogba — stands out as the most pragmatic of each of those wins but supporters didn’t mind on that occasion. The game was won in the first half and Klopp’s team offered nothing on the day.
Let’s not fool ourselves and say this is the cavalier United side of 1994, 1999 or 2008. But there’s certainly enough evidence to say Mourinho is more deserving of respect. Pochettino and Klopp are at clubs where it is possible to hide behind ‘good football’ papering over other flaws. For United, and Mourinho, there is no such luxury. There is room for a compromise of Mourinho’s style and an entertaining brand of football. We have seen that over the last six weeks. Perhaps it would be nice if the press recognised that.
The biggest criticism this writer has about this United side is its defence. The kindest thing I can say about its composition is that it would have been a decent back up for some of United’s best defences in recent years. There was a genuine flutter of anxiety when Matteo Darmian returned from the wilderness for the last ten minutes to complete what is surely the club’s most unreliable senior back four. As the game began, they hardly covered themselves in glory, with Spurs getting an early lead.
And yet — and compounding, and exacerbating, all of this frustration — these players are capable of a resilience which helps to influence a comeback of their team. Make no mistake, this was a piece of individual brilliance from Pogba and a great header from Sanchez which got United back into the semi-final — but that shot in the arm helped the side grow in confidence collectively and that improvement was seen in each individual member of the defence. The second half was fantastic.
It is bewildering that these players are capable of such fantastic, and such underwhelming, displays as we have seen. The best can be seen against the very best in the division. The worst, though, can be seen against the very worst.
And perhaps the best performances can also be the worst. Because they reel you in with the hope and belief. It’s time to be harsh, if United are to make the step forward they need to. And writing this, in the wake of their performance yesterday, makes me feel like I’ve kicked five baby puppies. Particularly as I’m a firm believer in the intangibles in sport; that application and dedication can not only make up that difference between winning and losing, but, it also represents so much that is good about the club.
A date with destiny
For the first time since they did it in 1958, United have qualified for an FA Cup Final in a year ending ‘8’. Ten years ago it was seen as fate that the club won the European Cup fifty years after the Munich Air Disaster.
United now have an opportunity to reclaim their place — alongside Arsenal — as the team who have won the trophy the most times, and what a year to do it if they do. It would be a fitting tribute to the memory of the work done by Jimmy Murphy.