Manchester United's FA Cup defeat embodied Jose Mourinho's reign of stasis – will this ever change?

After Saturday's 1-0 defeat at Wembley, all of the supposed progress from finishing in second place feels like it has evaporated for United

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Sunday 20 May 2018 10:16 BST
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Jose Mourinho reflects after defeat in FA Cup final of Chelsea

One of many problems for Jose Mourinho is that Saturday’s defeat wasn’t just a final, but a final say on the season.

The FA Cup did have genuine modern meaning in that regard. It ended up being something of a referendum on Manchester United’s campaign.

Now, all of the supposed progress from finishing in second place feels like it has evaporated. What will instead remain in the memory from 2017-18 is a mostly turgid display at Wembley, with that a fair reflection of how they have mostly performed.

This was another way the match was a referendum for them. It could only have gone two ways.

Because, throughout a campaign that has seen statistical improvement, there was always the undercurrent that they were underperforming; that something was not quite right with the side given the flatness of the football on offer.

There was consistently the suggestion that this was going to eventually cost them, as it did against Sevilla in the Champions League, but to give Mourinho his due the resolve he instilled in his side meant that they so often overcame such problems. This resilience was seen in five successive games against all of the rest of the big six, as they won them all, and came back from behind in two of them – including in this competition, in the semi-finals against Tottenham Hotspur, and against this opposition, in their 2-1 league win over Chelsea at Old Trafford.

All could have been set up for the ultimate vindication of the season. Except this time there was no response.

We instead saw what was perhaps an inevitable evening out, as the negative side of his approach came out, putting a negative spin on the season.

The flatness of Mourinho’s football was for once more influential than the resolve he’s propagated, and on one of the more important days of the football calendar it has thus come to dictate perceptions of United’s campaign.

United did admittedly rally in the second half, but it has similarly been a theme of the season that they have required going behind to actually go forward, and when that happens it’s always going to cost you at some point.

Much more relevant to the general health and future of the team was how uninspiring they looked in the first half. With no Romelu Lukaku – or, perhaps most relevantly with Mourinho, no big striker to base his attack around – there was no pattern. It was shapeless, aimless.

United put in a flat and uninspiring performance at Wembley
United put in a flat and uninspiring performance at Wembley (Getty)

This is something that seems to remain the case regardless of who he signs, regardless of what else happens. Mourinho still has enough other qualities to ensure his men overcome the challenge they’re presented with – but only just.

But this is now the issue. “Just enough” can’t be enough for United for any longer. That’s not what Mourinho was signed for, that’s not what he’s defined himself by, regardless of any complaints about City’s expenditure.

And the problem is that United probably need a City summer to get to that level, with that pointing to one of the main differences between the clubs.

With both Mourinho and Pep Guardiola two years into their jobs, the Catalan’s idea for his team is now so fully formed that every signing – even those that don’t work out – has a logical role in the squad. They are obvious pieces. They are an obviously working team, with such a defined idea - their manager’s ideal.

Pep Guardiola’s vision has taken form at Manchester City – the same can’t be said for Mourinho and United
Pep Guardiola’s vision has taken form at Manchester City – the same can’t be said for Mourinho and United (Getty)

That is not the case for United. Two years in, and Mourinho feels no closer to his ideal. It’s hard to even know what that idea is. The squad still looks like it needs as much work as it did when Mourinho came in in the summer of 2016.

It won’t lead to any referendum on his future. He retains the full backing of the board, and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. He will get full backing in the summer.

Mourinho has all the say, even if the final say of this season is not a positive. United need a lot of work to change that.

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