5 Things We Learned: Ajax 0-2 Manchester United


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1. Jose Mourinho wins Finals

It’s hard not to be apprehensive, especially ahead of a season defining game such as this one, but with the benefit of hindsight, was it ever really in doubt? He has now triumphed in 12 of the 14 major finals he has presided over, and he knew exactly what to do to win this one.

In his own widely reported words “There are a lot of poets in football but they don’t win titles. We knew where they (Ajax) were better than us, we knew where we were better than them. We tried to kill their good qualities, we tried to explore their weaknesses. We did that very well from the first minute and we totally deserved the trophy”. Once again, in keeping with the theme of this season, Mourinho was the definition of pragmatism. His counterpart Peter Bosz described it as “a boring game”. His side are young, creative and intuitive. Fluidity and playing ethos matter to him – the only thing that matters to Mourinho is victory.

What that equated to was United largely conceding possession, with Ajax enjoying 69% of the play. They also managed 17 shots on goal to United’s seven. However, it’s fair to say that United looked comfortable throughout, especially following Pogba’s deflected 18th minute opener. The only moment of genuine threat was the concession of a free kick for handball against Mkhytarian on the edge of the United box, which was scuffed into the wall. Aside from that, United defended in a compact and disciplined unit, and deprived Ajax of space in their attacking third. In possession, United looked to break, and play a largely direct style. Mourinho knew that against a less experienced side this direct, and physical approach would frustrate their opponents.

For a neutral, the game provided little by way of spectacle, but to be honest I don’t think any United fans will be any more concerned about that than Mourinho. It’s possible that a more open style could still have brought success, and United could have tried to take them on with a similar style, but we know only too well by now that isn’t Mourinho’s way. Why take the chance of conceding space against a potent attacking side? This final was all about winning. This is the most expensive football squad ever assembled, but yet it ended the evening with Marouane Fellaini playing as a lone striker. As he referenced himself, he did it to beat Bayern Munich when he was Inter manager, and he had no qualms about killing the game as a spectacle here either.

2. The season is now being deemed a success

It really did all ride on Wednesday night in Stockholm. The rest of the season counted for nothing if they couldn’t get over the line in this one. It’s hard to look at a final like this without reflecting on the context of the season. The media narrative is now that United have had the best season of any English team bar Chelsea. It’s hard to feel that way after what has largely been a season of frustration, but there is certainly merit to the argument.

I suppose in a modern context, the best parallel I can draw is watching the latest series of a box set you love, that isn’t as good as it used to be. You keep watching out of loyalty but in truth the team of writers have changed and they just haven’t struck upon a winning formula. You stick with it until the series finale in the hope that everything will tie together, and in this case the poor season has been salvaged with a strong finish that ties everything together. It gives you hope and keeps you coming back for the next instalment, especially with the rumours of some big stars signing up for the next run.

That’s what this final was about, and losing it would have been a catastrophe. The win has renewed hope of better things to come next season, and a winning mentality is being fostered. As I have written in recent weeks, serious progression is needed for next season; but with the prospect of the return of Champions League football, heavy investment in players expected, and at the very least some clear progress compared to the last few seasons, there is cause for renewed optimism.

It cannot be ignored that a 6th place finish is not good enough. This is a club with greater resources, reach and finances than any other club on the planet. They have spent extravagantly for three years now, and have not reaped the dividends. What this European triumph does is achieve a finish of around par for the season. It has been a long time since United last reached the summit of Europe. Mourinho has a track record of success, and most of that usually comes during the second season. He has laid foundations this season: few league games were lost until they were out of top four contention, the defence has been superb for the most part, and there appears to be a strong sense of team unity. Mourinho’s celebrations at the end certainly indicated the strength of his conviction that this is a side going somewhere. You have to smile when he says he “prefers” to win a trophy instead of achieving top four as if it is a direct choice, but that is the arrogant and mischievous side to his character that I enjoy.

3. There is nothing to suggest that Mourinho will change to a more expansive style in future

To further analyse Mourinho’s post-match comments, he said: “this was a victory of the pragmatism, a victory of the humble people, a victory of the people who respect the opponents, a victory of the people who try to stop the opponents and exploit their weaknesses”. When it comes to games against other clubs of stature, this is Mourinho. He is a reactive manager. He always has been. At times his sides can play good football, and can be rampant against weaker sides in the division. Ultimately, entertainment and spectacle do not feature highly on his agenda.

There were several factors working against him in his time as Real Madrid manager, and let’s – face it – no-one gets much time at that club. But this structured and sometimes ugly playing style definitely started to agitate a majority of fans and even players as time progressed.

There is no suggestion of any complaints from any Manchester United circles following this final triumph. However, what does cause concern is that this approach is a certainly to remain beyond this transition season. Since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, expectations have been lowered around the club, which has made this season a lot easier for Mourinho. Fans are just glad to have regained a measure of success, the method hardly matters. If this does prove to be a springboard for greater success next season, the style probably won’t be widely commented on. The bookmakers already have United installed as joint favourites for next season’s Premier League title. If the expected improvement does not come next season, the pragmatic approach will not win any extra plaudits.

4. Pogba rose to the occasion

When you arrive for a world record transfer fee, the expectation is that you make a difference in the big games. That’s exactly what Pogba did in Stockholm. He got his fortuitous goal, but his overall performance was pure class, and his athleticism and dynamism were there for all to see.

He has received more than his share of unwarranted criticism this season, so it is important to give credit where it is due. With the recent passing of his father no doubt still weighing heavy on his mind, this was a massive test of resilience for the 24-year-old Frenchman. He was the key dominant figure in the midfield on the night, and contributed heavily in all areas of play.

In truth, despite the criticism, he has been a key figure all season and greatly missed when not in the side. He has had some poor performances but on balance he has had a good season if not for the burden of the price tag. If he continues to mature into next season, he will represent good value for money if he doesn’t already. He is a rare commodity in football as he combines pace, size, strength, balance and enormous technical ability. He possesses a range of passing, he can dribble with the ball, and he is increasingly offering composure.

For someone who is more of a traditionalist when looking for players I admire, Pogba doesn’t quite fit the mould. When he is parading around with the trophy post-match, premiering his latest dance moves and doing the ‘dab’ like it isn’t going out of fashion, I like to picture Roy Keane’s disgruntled expression. However, maybe it’s just changed times. If he continues to put in the performances, he can continue to pollute my Instagram account with his ludicrous shuffles all he wants.

5. Manchester is Wonderful

The events of Monday were a reminder that ultimately, football is not important. It is a game, a past time and a hobby that a lot of us dedicate a lot of time and emotion towards. What Wednesday’s final did illustrate was the remarkable power football has to create a sense of community and belonging.

Manchester United as a football club is global, and features a playing staff that spans the continents. However, it belongs to the city of Manchester and its people. I am not from Manchester, but I was proud to see the response of the people of the city, as well as the club, following on from that disgusting attack.

It’s hard not to get emotional when looking at the outpouring of passion from the fans to win the trophy, because I think it transcends football and what happened on the pitch. Football is an outlet for passion, and helps fans to bond and be close in a way that would never happen without the sport. The truth is we don’t know how to process, or respond to the events of Monday night. The people of Manchester have shown compassion, warmth, and camaraderie that is to be commended. The United fans reflected that in Stockholm, and the loud chants of ‘Manchester is Wonderful’ struck a chord with the entire population, football fan or not.

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