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This was a final between two great clubs battling to salvage a measure of success from their respective sub-par seasons. Manchester United finished second, yet a distant second which falls far short of pre-season expectations. Reigning Premier League Champions Chelsea failed to secure a top four finish as they face up to the realities of Europa League football next season. The FA Cup represented a consolation prize that would add a sheen to those disappointments, and the evening ended with the blue ribbons of Chelsea adorning the famous trophy. Here are five things we learned:
1. Chelsea were deserved winners
There were many reasons why Manchester United fans looked ahead to this final with reasons for optimism. Having beaten Chelsea in the most recent league encounter at Old Trafford, United entered the game with more momentum than their opponents. Although Mourinho’s men coasted into the end of the season having secured second place with games to spare, they rotated their squad with a satisfactory draw at West Ham and slender win against Watford. Chelsea had failed to beat a relegation-threatened Huddersfield and looked certifiably shambolic last week losing 3-0 away to Newcastle.
Add this to the fact that United have cultivated a very respectable record this season against their main rivals, their excellent recent record at Wembley, and Jose Mourinho’s unrivalled success in cup finals, and most fans were quietly confident of ending the season with silverware.
Looking purely at the game statistics, you would also be lead to believe that Manchester United deserved to win this game. They controlled 66% of the possession – unusual for a Mourinho side in a game of this stature – mustered 18 shots on goal to Chelsea’s 6; amassed 515 passes to Chelsea’s 226, with an 88% success rate; and if you are familiar with XG, the expected goals finished Chelsea 1.5 Man United 1.7.
This was a tight, tense final, which it was always likely to be. Many of the headlines in the Sunday papers are correct, Antonio Conte out-Mourinho’d Mourinho. Chelsea took their first half lead through Eden Hazard’s penalty, and they defended superbly for the rest of the game. If Mourinho had scored first, there is little doubt he would have adopted the same tactic. They have similar tactical styles, and Chelsea were happy to surrender the initiative to United.
Although they managed a large number of shots on goal, and probed with more purpose in the second half, the only clear opening was the free header missed by Pogba with around ten minutes remaining. The truth is that Manchester United were poor, and created little chances of any merit, and enjoyed largely sterile possession, passing side to side in a style reminiscent of Van Gaal’s tenure. The Chelsea back three of Azpilicueta, Rudiger and Cahill supplemented by the tireless Kante and physical Bakayoko looked comfortable throughout, whilst remaining dangerous on the break against an extremely vulnerable United defence. Chelsea could just as easily have doubled their lead in the second half and defended superbly throughout. Their methods could be questioned, but they were worthy winners.
2. Mourinho went straight into self-preservation mode
A raw and hurting Mourinho was interviewed on the pitch straight after the final whistle. He is solely motivated by success and trophies, so unsurprisingly he was feisty and defiant in his comments: “Well, with your questions I know already where I am and I don’t have a big desire to speak. I think it’s better to say congratulations to the winners and that’s it”. However, he went on to say that he believed the better side had lost, and that only one team was trying to play football.
Mourinho is quoted when speaking with Sky Sports: “I knew the opponent I was going to play against. I knew they have a compact low block with lots of physicality where they try to close everything…. They only played long balls to Giroud to flick and then Hazard to get second balls in individual actions. So, when you play against a team so predictable it is quite easy to adapt to it”.
It is clear Mourinho believed that he could set up his side to avoid conceding, and he is correct that Chelsea played in a very controlled disciplined manner. However, Mourinho can bear no complaints. Following Europa League final success against Ajax last season, a game which United played a direct and highly disciplined style, Mourinho stated “If you want to press the ball all the time, you don’t play short. If you are dominant in the air you go long. There are lots of poets in football but poets, they don’t win many titles”.
For a man who has, on countless occasion espoused results before methods, he cannot complain about the pattern of this final. He did at least offer congratulations, which is difficult against an opponent in Conte for whom he clearly holds in disdain.
Mourinho, normally a master of getting the job done in finals, did not get his tactics right. Herrera man-marking Hazard did not work, and it contributed to the fractious performance as he focussed on stopping the opponents instead of imposing the talents of his side against Chelsea. They only seized the initiative when it was given to them, and despite their impressive recent record of turning games around from a losing position, it never really looked likely as the game slipped away from the Portuguese manager.
He was though, eager to praise the performance of his players. “My opinion on the performance is that every defeat hurts but for me personally the ones that hurt less is when you give everything and you go without any regrets. So I prefer to lose like today then to lose like we did, for example, at Newcastle. I leave my players happy with them, very happy with them. For me that’s really important”. These are interesting comments given that, although it is fair to say you wouldn’t question the effort and commitment of many United players, there were many that played poorly. This season, Mourinho has shown he is as likely to throw his players under the bus as he is to park it. The fact that he was so eager to emphasise their dominance and application may well be a familiar smoke-screen to the fact that Mourinho himself got it wrong. There is no doubt that patience is wearing thin with many sections of the club’s support, and he may be starting to feel the heat having finished the season without silverware. When you strip away the success, there isn’t much left.
3. Hazard stood out
Eden Hazard stood out as the best player on the pitch, and by some distance. Every time he got the ball, he oozed class and confidence. He was menacing in any position he collected the ball, played with maturity, and was ultimately responsible for the decisive moment in the match.
It hit home that Hazard, when motivated, is genuinely world class. No other attacking player on the pitch would enter the same conversation. It stood in stark contrast to Alexis Sanchez. Although he has provided flashes of quality since his January arrival, this was yet another poor outing for the Chilean. His touch was laboured, and he struggled to have any influence on the game. Paul Pogba showed moments of the ability that we all know he has, but equally showed that he is unable to regularly exert influence on big occasions such as this one.
United needed a talisman of the quality of Hazard, which was ultimately the reason that Chelsea ended up with the trophy.
4. Phil Jones is the fall guy
Many United fans view Phil Jones with a large degree of affection. His array of faces pulled amid his many last-ditch lunging challenges have offered as much entertainment as the football at Old Trafford this season. He provided another classic when conceding the penalty on Saturday.
The problem is, even though he has had stretches of outstanding form, he produces an unacceptably high number of calamitous moments. He is the most awkward-looking defender in the division. His body shape was all wrong in addressing the ball that Hazard shot on to leading to the penalty, and he was then forced into a desperate position. This happens all the time, which is part of the reason he produced so many last-ditch challenges – he causes them in the first place.
He is a player that offers total commitment, and despite his clumsy gait, he has a decent level of athleticism and ball-playing ability. The reality is though, this is not a player you can hang your hat on. He is not a player who can provide 50 games as season, every season, with a low number of errors. He is not a player who should be starting regularly for a club with the aspirations of Manchester United. That is a fact before you consider his absolutely appalling injury record. Chris Smalling had a good game, however falls into the same category as Jones.
Therefore, it is absolutely baffling why Eric Bailly, very clearly the best defender at the club, was on the bench for this final. He has consistently been left out in recent weeks as the central defensive pairing has frequently been changed. This has offered none of the continuity that is vital in constructing a solid defence. Perhaps there is something that has happened in private that has ruled Bailly out of favour, but in purely football terms, it is inexplicable that he did not start.
5. Lukaku was missed
“It was not my decision, it was his decision (not to start)” said Mourinho. “When a player tells you he isn’t ready to play, when he tells you he is not ready to start the game, the question is ‘How many minutes do you think you can?” He went on to state that ‘our team doesn’t have a presence’ without Lukaku or Fellaini in the side. There is no question that the absence of Romelu Lukaku was keenly felt by Manchester United.
Lukaku had been virtually ever-present in the side until his ill-timed injury late in the season, which caused him to rule himself out of a starting berth in this final. By the time he came on, he had little impact against a packed and physically dominant defence.
United certainly do struggle without their powerhouse striker. Part of this is due to his physicality – Mourinho has always build sides with a strong physical presence up front. It was also due to the fact that he offers a focal point, playing up against the last defender in central positions. In his absence, Marcus Rashford had a poor game in his preferred central role. He was part of a fluid front three with Sanchez and Lingard, but all three constantly dropped deep in search of the ball. This was detrimental to the game plan. It was a reminder that Rashford, through little fault of his own, has not progressed as hoped this season. Mourinho is not known for giving young talent the freedom to flourish or the hands-on coaching to develop. Rashford did not offer a focal point for his team, and in his defence, it was a big ask in a role he has barely played this season.
Had Lukaku been fit to start, perhaps the result would have been different. It was an indication though, that playing this style of football, United do not have a suitable plan B.
It will be an interesting summer ahead, after which Manchester United will be required to offer much improvement on this fractious and disappointing performance.