As the final whistle was blown this past Saturday (21 April), Manchester United celebrated reaching their second FA Cup final in three years and a chance to equal Arsenal who hold a record 13 titles in the oldest domestic competition in the world.
Another cup final for Manchester United. Another cup final for Jose Mourinho.
“The Special One’s” side will take on his former employers Chelsea in a repeat of the 2007 final, itself having been the inaugural edition played in the then-new Wembley Stadium. Jose Mourinho was victorious on that day for the Blues—in an ironic twist of fate—just after losing the league title to Manchester United in a thrilling Premier League season.
United are a red tide rising
This season has been a strange one for the manager and for his club in that it is still hard for many to quantify the progress that United have made under his hand. One glance at the numbers, however, should paint a clearer picture. Manchester United are on course to hitting their highest Premier League tally of points since they won the league the last time, five years ago.
By extension, United have already won the greatest number of games this season than in any of the previous years, since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure. They have scored more goals, conceded less and are reasonably more entertaining to watch (in most games anyway).
A keener look at the results suggests that United have fared much better against the top six than in recent years, particularly in the last two years when they have struggled to overcome the ‘top six’ away from home. This season, United have beat the champions-elect Manchester City, Arsenal and now Spurs away from home. In the last two months, they have also managed to edge Chelsea and Liverpool at home; while their home record across the two seasons has also been impressive.
Does a high mark mean high marks for Jose Mourinho?
Now, is this a bar high enough to call the appointment of Mourinho a resounding success so far? Maybe not. But the Portuguese has been far from disappointing and in general the consensus is that the club is being taken in the right direction under his management. Two trophies (Mourinho would say ‘three’) and the likelihood of another in the first two seasons on top of what is increasingly looking like a second place finish—the highest they will finish in the league since 2013—cannot be construed as anything but progress either.
Yet, Mourinho still faces the heat of criticism. That often coming from large sections of the English media that continue to question the value he has added to the side since he took over the reins in 2016.
Certainly the flaws in Mourinho’s design at Man United are quite obvious. As prolific as his record in the knockout competitions could be—often times against the lesser sides in the league—his sides still also often lack the imagination and at times motivation to win games, despite the great attacking talent at his disposal.
United have too often failed to win…
Manchester City, by contrast, have been ruthless in the league this season and they are where they are on grounds of merit. Mourinho’s own estimation that his side should have avoided dropping at least 10 of the 28 points that they have, was absolutely correct and that is something he should work on at the training grounds to better prepare for next season.
The defeats against Huddersfield Town, Newcastle United and more recently West Bromwich Albion could have all been avoided had Manchester United approached the game better from a mental perspective and most certainly braver from an attacking standpoint.
…and too often failed to even try.
United mustered a total of 11 shots on target in those three defeats combined and therein lies the issue. They have switched off for large periods in games they are expected to win. The in-game management has failed to emerge in these less-glamorous outings, and failed to produce the outcome in the same way it did in the big games more often than not this season. The fault for that must lie squarely at the feet of the head man.
Whether Jose Mourinho will reassess his approach to find a different solution—as he obviously did last weekend versus Spurs, going in with a 3-man midfield and Paul Pogba on the left—is the ultimate question for United’s future. All will be revealed beginning in August. Until then he will be no doubt glad that his side will have another meaningful game to stay focused for and look forward to in May.
The FA Cup final is all that matters for now.