Manchester United face a tall order to pick themselves back up off the floor, after timidly enabling Antonio Conte to, in all likelihood, leave Stamford Bridge with an FA Cup winners medal.
Pre-match, Jose Mourinho typically straight batted a question regarding whether a win at Wembley would have meant his team had had a good season. As much as he denied it, you have to be brutally honest and say this was not how people envisaged United’s season to go.
A title concede by the biggest ever margin, a wretched Champions League exit to one of La Liga’s non-heavyweights and recurring reports of player unrest and Mourinho throwing his players under the bus was not the order of proceedings. It has marred the fact 2017-18 represented the best Premier League return for United since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
United have had two former wingers, ageing ones at that, at full-back, persisted with the likes of Smalling and Jones, central midfielders in Carrick and probably Fellaini exiting the scene, young undoubted talents Rashford and Martial failing to fully blossom, Alexis Sanchez not showing his true capabilities and an over-reliance on Romelu Lukaku and David de Gea.
On top of these issues, Rui Faria is taking a sabbatical from football, ending a to-date uninterrupted career as Mourinho’s trusted lieutenant. The above are not exaggerations or bending of the truth- they are real problems, which are not solely based on Saturday’s events or me being wise after the event.
As we know, it’s much harder to defend a crown than claim one, but there’s no doubt City will recruit aggressively and go again. There may even be a distinct possibility that Salahpool will improve again next season. Chelsea will get a new gaffer and pose a threat- after all, that’s their bread and butter revelling in the hire and fire approach. Should Spurs keep their stars, seldom seen of course, they will continue to build under Pochettino. Long story short, United will have it tough aiming for 21 next season.
So the million dollar question is how on earth do United come back from the disappointments domestically and in Europe? What needs to be done?
Use the hurt
I was in the Stadium of Light when City won the title on goal difference. I still get flashbacks of that pain. Sir Alex told his players, if they could take one thing from that day, it would be to remember the gloating Mackems rubbing it in and use that hurt as their drive for next season. A twentieth title followed twelve months later. You don’t learn as much in glory as you do in defeat, for the likes of De Gea, Lingard, Rashford, Pogba- use that hurt as your fuel.
Of all the Mourinho buys still at the club, only Romelu Lukaku has stepped up and shown his true colours on a consistent basis. Paul Pogba has not found a consistency high level, Eric Bailly, undoubtedly United’s best centre-back, is not in favour for whatever reason and Victor Lindelof, who was not unequivocally approved by Mourinho, has not been trusted.
In short, United do not necessarily need the stellar names, just players who will fill a role in the positions required- both full-back areas, central defence and midfielder and quite possibly a winger- should Anthony Martial, as expected, cut his ties with United. He’s had a great season by all accounts, but you’ll never hear of Ashley Young the title winning left-back. It’s not his fault he’s been asked to play there, it’s more the point United need specialists. We have been plagued with these utility buys like Darmian, Rojo, Blind for too long and it’s plainly clear where United need strengthening.
We know old dogs never learn new tricks, and it seems entirely impossible, but could the manager change his ways? He will defend his stance, it’s my way or the highway but the question continues to be raised whether he could put his arms round shoulders that need it, rather than throwing his players under the bus. Luke Shaw, Martial, Pogba and Rashford have all been subject to that treatment and it has the potential to break young players. Don’t get me wrong each of those circumstances has a different story and players need to accept some level of responsibility, but you see first hand how receptive Liverpool’s and Spurs’ players are to the respective ways of Klopp and Pochettino and wonder if only. Man management is a fundamental requirement of an elite manager and is not an area Mourinho can boast to excel in.
We are in a results business and no doubt United have been more consistent in amassing 81 points this season but style is as equal a factor at United. Fans have put up with the style, or lack of, to this point as they needed that stabilising factor after the messes created by Moyes and Van Gaal. They lost the addictive habit of winning games. That has been restored to some degree, now can the style be improved with better personnel acquired? Attacking players should be allowed to flourish, after all they do things defenders simply cannot. It’s easy to keep a clean sheet, harder to unlock a defence. You wonder whether the likes of Sanchez, Martial and Rashford would enhance their games with more creative licence. Unfortunately, Mourinho releasing the chains figures low down on the list of footballing probabilities.
This is no Mourinho out tirade before anyone catches the wrong drift. He has improved United’s fortunes in his two years at the club but some things are still missing after huge amounts of money being spent. United are destined to go big again this summer and it is reaching a now or never phase. How much money can you keep backing a manager without reaching the ultimate goals, getting back to Premier and Champions League successes? It is a huge summer and United need to be clinical and decisive.
The third season is notorious and historically ominous for Mourinho, having failed to get the short-term tag off his back.
This is where the start of a messy end begins to formulate.
I am hoping, for the sake of my fellow supporters of our great club, that sequence has to break. But hope is about all at the minute.