Manchester United fans travelled to Wembley on Saturday afternoon in great spirits. While it was clear that Chelsea were no pushovers, there’s no denying that United had enjoyed the better campaign in 2017/18. Finishing second, 11 points clear of Antonio Conte’s team, set United up nicely for a positive end to the season if they could add a trophy.
Come the final whistle, United fans could hardly believe that they had lost. Despite dominating the chances, with 18 to Chelsea’s six, as well as possession, with 67% to Chelsea’s 33%, Jose Mourinho’s side couldn’t find the back of the net.
“It is enough today but if we want to win a lot of games we need to play better because we had to play defensively,” Eden Hazard said after the game, perhaps equally as surprised as United’s fans were that Chelsea had lifted the trophy.
— Chelsea FC (@ChelseaFC) May 21, 2018
Immediately supporters were looking for someone to blame. Phil Jones was the most obvious culprit, given that he gave away the penalty that Hazard scored the winning goal from. He couldn’t match Hazard for pace but he needed to do something to stop him before he got in to the penalty area. Make a tactical foul and take the yellow card but to bring him down in the penalty area was the sort of stupidity that those inside Old Trafford have become accustomed to. David de Gea had made the angle tight and it would have been harder for Hazard to score from there than the penalty spot.
Paul Pogba missed a sitter at the end of the game after another below par performance, but in truth, the whole team weren’t at the races. Just because Chelsea played badly and were there for the taking, it didn’t excuse the United players from failing to capitalise.
The person responsible for the performance of the collective is Mourinho and he didn’t do his job. He talked at the final whistle in his pride in their performance and acknowledged the difficulties in trying to beat a side that stuck 11 men behind the ball for over an hour. The irony in him complaining about Conte’s methods was apparent to all, given Mourinho has done the same on so many occasions.
It was interesting that the media labelled Conte’s approach to the game as a “tactical masterclass”, which is the sort of praise rarely afforded to Mourinho when he plays in the same way, but that matters little.
The manager had to do more on Saturday and it was his responsibility to get more out of his players. He failed.
Maybe it could have been a different outcome if Romelu Lukaku was fit to play but had Mourinho done more to develop Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial this season, his absence wouldn’t have hit the team so hard.
Winning the FA Cup didn’t make or break United’s season. It wouldn’t have been enough to paper over the cracks that have emerged but it would have allowed the season to end on a high and start with some optimism.
Finishing the campaign 19 points behind Manchester City, a club who will likely outspend all of their rivals for a fifth time in six seasons this summer, is looking to be an insurmountable task for Mourinho if he can’t motivate his players to do more against a very average Chelsea outfit with the promise of a trophy at the end of it.
Mourinho needs the fans on side and he has lost so many of them. While that anger will subside and the transfer window rumours may get people giddy again, with the belief that the team is just a few players away from having a good team, it’s hard for any to get too excited about the season ahead.
Some fans are ready for him to be sacked now but that would make little sense. Who could do a better job?
Mauricio Pochettino has been a favourite with some fans for a while, but the truth is the only silverware he’s claimed in his nine years in the profession is some manager of the month awards. Building a decent Spurs side on a shoestring budget without winning a thing tells us little about how suitable he would be as United manager, a club that has plenty to spend and demands trophies. The real positive is his style of play, with supports craving more attacking football. Yet they only scored six goals more than United this season, which isn’t too impressive when you consider Harry Kane scored 14 more than Lukaku.
There are problems at United and they still would have been there had they claimed the trophy on Saturday.
The fact they didn’t only emphasises what has been going wrong. Mourinho now has the summer to work out how to fix it. Will his ego mean he follows Arsene Wenger on the road to nowhere, believing his methods are correct even when they’re failing, or will he take a leaf out of Sir Alex Ferguson’s book and adapt with the times? The likelihood of it being the former is the reason why plenty of United fans believe it’s time for him to go.