Manchester United fail to show significant progress under Jose Mourinho despite highest Premier League finish in five years
One step forward, two steps back, that seems to be the operative phrase for Manchester United as they fight hard to get back to relevance and title contention.
The FA Cup final against Chelsea was another instance where Manchester United could have made a statement to signify their progress under Jose Mourinho. Instead, they stuttered and sputtered their way to a loss, allowing their opponents to win the FA Cup, and ending their season trophy-less. One step forward, two steps back, that seems to be the operative phrase for United as they fight hard to get back to relevance and title contention.
Following the match, the Portuguese tactician was left having to show his firefighting skills again, as he diverted attention from his team's inability to break the opposition's defence down to the fact that the opponents were defensive and relied on long-balls to start their counter-attacks. A match that saw players like Alexis Sanchez, Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, and substitutes Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku struggle to fashion any clearcut chances and laid an egg in front of goal.
If in the first season under Mourinho, United were very good in cup competitions, winning two trophies – Carabao Cup and Europa League – this year was the exact opposite, as they failed to show the ability to take the game to their opponents in crunch matches, be it in the Champions League or in the Carabao Cup. As a result, they faltered at crucial times in both competitions, causing their elimination before the latter stages of the tournaments. Despite doing well in the FA Cup, they have been left empty-handed due to their inability to raise their game when the opposition posed a different challenge.
Having said all that, the Red Devils had a solid season in the Premier League, finishing second, their highest finish since 2012-13, when they won the title in Sir Alex Ferguson's last season in charge. Defensively, they were a tight unit and used their strong rearguard action to form the foundations of a run to the second position, finishing the season as the second-best defence. The attack is still a work-in-progress, despite spending heavily on players like Lukaku, Pogba and Sanchez, as there is quite often a lack of clear thinking in the team's forward play.
As a club, United have always upheld the tradition of giving players from the academy a fair shot at making the first team and Lingard and Scott McTominay both took advantage of the opportunities afforded to them by the manager, with the former becoming a fixture in the starting line-up, especially in the big matches. The freedom afforded to the attacking midfielder has given him confidence and it has shown in his performances, as he scored 14 goals and provided six assists. McTominay showed good understanding for someone so young as he followed his manager's instructions exactly, breaking up play and using his physicality to make things difficult for the opposition.
However, there have been a few negatives, and those have to be elaborated upon as well. Two of the club's best young prospects, Martial and Rashford, have definitely regressed, as they have struggled for game time and on many occasions, especially in the second half of the season, showing a distinct lack of confidence on the pitch.
Despite their limited playing time, the Englishman has scored 13 goals and chipped in with six assists while the Frenchman has scored 11 times and provided 10 assists. Their development has definitely been hindered by the signing of Alexis Sanchez in the January transfer window, with the Chilean also preferring to play down the left. Still just 20 and 22, Rashford and Martial have the talent and attitude to succeed at a club like United, but they need to be given the proper platform to go out and express themselves. If the current selections continue, one, if not both of them, would explore opportunities to leave the club in search of regular football.
With 10 defenders on the club's payroll, one would expect defence to be their strength and not at all an area of concern. However, a big reason the defence is able to hold out on many occasions and keep out goals is due to the presence of David de Gea in goal. Mourinho has so far played a generally simple system, alternating between 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 and the defenders have in general played it safe.
The defenders on the club's roster are not good enough to perform well consistently and help their team stay on top. None of them is consistent enough or fit enough to play for a prolonged period in the team. Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have done very well as full-backs, but the fact remains that they are wingers converted into full-backs. In central defence, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones seem to be the most commonly tried pair and yet, they are error-prone and can only play well against a certain kind of opponent.
Similarly, the Red Devils also have some of the best attacking players going forward but a lot of them are not on the same wavelength. The team's chemistry and style of play need to be sorted out in the summer if the team are to improve on their showing next season. Pogba and Sanchez need to learn how to link-up together, while Mourinho must take a close look at the positioning of Lingard, Martial and Rashford as all of them land up in the same spot to pick up the ball at times.
If someone points out the team's failures this season to Mourinho, he will go on a rant about the number of points picked up in the league, along with the number of wins and losses and number of goals scored. However, he is yet to grasp the significance of the team learning to play a particular style of football. At the moment, a lot depends on individuals and what they are able to conjure up when on the field.
There is no doubt that United have been a much better team in the league, and they did finish second to their city rivals. However, the gap to Manchester City was 19 points and if the Red Devils are to close that gap in the coming season, they need to improve the issues crippling the progress of the team.
For that, the team must spend wisely in the summer transfer window to plug the holes in their midfield and find new players who will form the spine of the defence for many years to come. However, what needs to be kept in mind is that the club have been spending loads of money since Mourinho became the manager, and yet, are not yet competing for every competition.
Chelsea won the FA Cup, Manchester City won the Premier League and the Carabao Cup while Liverpool are in the final of the Champions League. The one big name that is missing from this list? It is Manchester United. That is Mourinho's objective – to put the club back on the map again, and unfortunately, with no trophies this season, the enthusiasm of their league position has been dampened and gives them a clear mandate ahead of next season.
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