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Coming from a goal down to beat a widely-fancied and much-vaunted Tottenham Hotspur at their adopted home of Wembley has booked an FA Cup Final date for Jose Mourinho’s men. Here are five things we learned:
1. The Better Team Won
After a shaky opening to the half which included conceding a disappointing goal after 10 minutes, Manchester United demonstrated many of the attributes associated with classic Jose Mourinho teams to rally and ultimately triumph in this semi-final relatively comfortably.
Given recent form – most notably the home defeat to a previously hapless West Brom – Manchester United entered this crucial encounter as slight underdogs. The bookies don’t often get it wrong, and their pessimism was justified as on their last away trip to Wembley United suffered a resounding 3-0 defeat in a game that started abysmally and got worse. The thing with this team is they are incredibly difficult to analyse, let alone predict. They have been the epitome of a Jeckyl and Hyde team throughout the season, and there is little logic or predictability over which version of the team will decide to turn up on any given day. One week ago at Old Trafford, there was absolutely zero passion, desire or will-to-win. The attack was static, and the defence looked vulnerable.
Once the side gathered their composure against Tottenham, they looked like a very efficient and organised unit. Mourinho summarised this well in his post-match comments to the media: “Both teams tried to start very strong, very aggressive. They were better than us, they scored and there was a period when we lost a little bit of control in midfield. But then we had a good reaction, good football, good goal. In the second half, good brain. We were well organised, confident, calm, and very much in control, even when Spurs had the ball”.
Football has become a game, for most spectators, very much inter-twined with statistics. The match stats show that Spurs had a 63% share of possession, 13 attempts on goal to United’s 12, and a territorial advantage. That does not reflect the fact that much of that possession was sterile, as Spurs created little of any substance after their 10th minute opener. Eric Dier hitting the post with a long-range effort on the stroke of half time represented the closest they came to adding a second.
Mourinho continued: “The attitude was good. They players were good. They were focused and ready. They helped each other and were confident to play. I was really happy and pleased”. This is not surprising, as it is what Mourinho has been trying to achieve since taking the job as manager at United. He creates sides where players understand their role and carry out instructions. In games of significance such as this one, those instructions generally reflect his pragmatism and preference to expose weaknesses in the opposition as opposed to imposing his own style of play. That was very much the blue print for this victory. Once level, United were extremely hard to break down and Spurs had few ideas how to penetrate the defence. This provided a platform to launch counter attacks that, with Pogba on form and a vibrant attacking trio, looked menacing.
Once in front, although there were nerves associated with the occasion, United were well worth their victory. The players applied themselves and some showed their undoubted talent within the rigid structure their manager had imposed. This will please Mourinho greatly. It wasn’t free-flowing or particularly pleasing on the eye. The reality is, provided it brings results and trophies, there will remain plenty of good will toward the Portuguese manager. These are the results and performances
he was expected to deliver – the issue has been and will continue to be – consistency of performance.
2. Selection of Alexis Sanchez was justified
In selecting his side for this game, which became the most important of the season so far given it is the last remaining hope of silverware, the position of Alexis Sanchez on the left side of the attack was under the most scrutiny. Both Rashford and Martial had impressed in the midweek victory at Bournemouth, whilst Sanchez was again hugely disappointing in his previous outing in the home defeat to West Brom. It was a strong show of faith from Mourinho to select his costly January acquisition, and there is no doubt that his faith was repaid.
Following the game, Mourinho claimed “I told Alexis what I told Paul Pogba a couple of weeks ago. I cannot expect my players to be man of the match every match. I cannot expect them to be perfect every match. What I expect is a certain level that they cannot go below. That level is the basic things in the game and then, in some matches, your talent appears and makes the difference. So I’m not waiting for Alexis in the next match to score again and be the man of the match. I just want him to be stable”.
There has been no question of the effort and application employed by Sanchez since arriving at Old Trafford. To the casual observer, the issue has been that he has been desperate to make an impact on every game, and attempting too much. He has been guilty of giving the ball away alarmingly frequently, be it through unsuccessful and ill-judged dribble attempts, speculative shots, or needlessly elaborate passes.
Confidence and a sense of belonging are crucial to any player, particularly at this level. In this game, Sanchez maintained his level of intensity, but played with greater assurance and experience. He is a big character and has proven himself on many big Wembley occasions in the past. His first half goal, taken expertly and demonstrating his extreme athleticism, settled him into this game. It was a goal and a performance he needed as, to continue his generally improved form since the victory against Swansea at home.
These post-game comments from Mourinho are sensible. He is a coach who values players doing simple things well, and it is no coincidence he mentioned Paul Pogba in the same sentence. He has shown a good level of trust in Sanchez, and clearly trusts him to have a big role to play in this team as he continues to adjust into his new surroundings. He played a key role in this victory.
3. The Comeback Demonstrated Character
At the risk of sounding like Brendan Rodgers, this United side displayed an admirable level of ‘character’. This is significant because, since Sir Alex Ferguson hung up his invisible watch, character has not been a virtue of the Moyes, Van Gaal, and until recently Mourinho eras.
A club once famed for their never-say-die, fight until the final whistle attitude, had turned into a side with about as much resilience as an ice cube in the desert, wilting at the first sign of pressure. Since 2013, if Manchester United went behind in a game, you may as well have switched off or gone home because it was game over.
In recent weeks, we have witnessed rousing, against the odds comebacks against Crystal Palace, Manchester City and now Spurs at Wembley. It has reached a point where, despite the early set back, there was no need for panic. The players gathered their composure which resonated trust from the fans. This is a platform upon which to build, as there is evidence of a strong bond between the players. The back four of Valencia, Young Jones and Smalling played with absolute rugged determination, and celebrated tackles and interventions as though they were goals. The goals were celebrated joyfully and as a group. There are numerous indicators that this is a group that has the potential to develop into a successful side. Winning the FA Cup in years gone by would not represent a successful season, but in the current context, would represent more progress in a period of stabilisation.
Following the game, Romelu Lukaku reflected these thoughts: “I’m really confident in my team mates… It was a strange season for us. If we had more consistency we could have been up there with Manchester City now. But we know what we have to improve for next season”. The coming weeks are crucial to build momentum to carry into next season in order to try and continue this progression. If the squad can largely be kept together along with a couple of key acquisitions, they have proven that the ability is there to challenge for major honours, despite the fact they have come up significantly short this season.
4. Herrera adds balance
United lined up in a 4-3-3 formation with a midfield trio of Herrera, Matic and Pogba. This was a change from the defeat at Wembley in January, when United played an adventurous 4-2-3-1.
The difference Ander Herrera makes in games such as this is crucial. He covers a huge amount of grounds, snaps into tackles, makes interceptions, and as well as being industrious on the ball is the type of menace that opposition sides hate to play against. His most obvious contribution was scoring the winning goal, but he offered so much and was the main factor in United dominating midfield the usually dominant pairing of Dembele and Dier.
The shape of this team looks much more solid and comfortable with a midfield trio, and Herrera offers a perfect foil and added protection to allow Pogba to roam and inflict damage at the other end of the pitch, which he did to good effect. There is no doubt Pogba is at his best when accommodated in this way, and he linked in well with Sanchez on the left.
5. Rashford made an impact
Marcus Rashford once again failed to make the starting line up and was limited to just over 10 minutes of action. Although it is disappointing and concerning that he has had a limited amount of football in the past few months, he used his limited time to remind all watching that he is a potent threat and a hugely valuable player.
To credit Mourinho, the pace of Rashford at the stage he was introduced, added an extra dimension to the United attack as they threatened on the break, and he could easily have found himself of the score sheet.
Having been ever-present in the side a couple of years ago as a raw 18-year-old, perhaps this is sensible management of this prodigious talent. When you consider the sheer amount of football young players like Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney played in their teenage years, and the levels to which their teams relied on them, then an impact role such as this may actual aid his development and lengthen his career.
Of course, at some stage he requires regular starts, but at this point in time his impact from the bench is a weapon at Mourinho’s disposal.