Football is often about rhythm, no matter the tempo it is played at. Manchester United lost theirs before the FA Cup Final, and paid the price, failing to take advantage of a relaxed end to the league season to prepare for their biggest game.
Marcus Rashford embodied that loss of rhythm in his performance as centre-forward at Wembley. His performances have left much to be desired, but the fault is not his, rather that of his manager, Jose Mourinho.
The Portuguese manager’s Cup final tactics were not unexplainable nor undeniably wrong. But Mourinho failed to utilise a run of three games against somewhat easy opposition to prepare his side for their biggest fixture of the season.
Rashford had no striking rhythm
Rashford was frantic throughout and hard-working. But that was irrelevant when it was so demonstrably obvious that Man United were missing Romelu Lukaku. To miss a player of such ability and quality is unsurprising and cannot be criticised, but United were not left in the lurch by his injury. Had the Belgian suffered an unfortunate training ground knock, days before the game, the lack of preparedness may have been acceptable, but Mourinho had three weeks to re-calibrate his side for a big game without Lukaku. He failed.
Lukaku picked up his injury in United’s 2-1 victory against Arsenal at the end of April, three weeks prior to the trip to Wembley. The assumption, or more likely, the hope, was that he was would be fully fit to lead the line against Chelsea. That, of course, was not the case.
Mourinho wasted three preparation matches
With three matches, against Brighton, West Ham and Watford, teams struggling all season, Rashford and Mourinho had time to adjust the team’s style to suit a different type of striker. Rashford, instead, struggled against Chelsea. Is that so surprising given he was being asked to fulfil the role of Lukaku, a player with a significantly different style and build, with no palpable change in the playing style of the team?
There were minor changes, with Mourinho starting, at least on paper, with two strikers. But the attacking outfit of the side lacked structure and balance, and Rashford’s job replicated Lukaku’s; running the channels and holding the ball up. His real qualities, it is clear, are those of a quick, skilful and tricky forward who thrives off taking people on.
He undoubtedly should have performed better. Rashford didn’t make use of the chances that did fall to him, but he could have had more had he not lacked the discipline required of a top centre-forward. Lukaku has shown many times this season just how important it is to acknowledge that sometimes less movement means more, even if it means fewer touches on the ball and less involvement.
Rashford was too often found drifting onto the touchline and getting chalk on his boots. He had only four touches in the box. When he’s playing as the right or left winger, that’s an exciting prospect; one of the great thrills of United is watching this young and unpredictable player. But it’s not where he should have been on Saturday. And some fault must lie at Rashford’s feet, but those too of Mourinho, who allowed United’s Premier League campaign to end in a manner not befitting of a club or side this good. United were heavy, stodgy and dull after the Arsenal win, when they could have been rampantly chasing down the days until the Cup Final.
Mourinho instead elected to play the deadwood of the club. Instead of playing his Cup final team, or at least something resembling it, players like Daley Blind and Matteo Darmian, who look certain to leave the club in the approaching months, started.
Rashford needed chance to recalibrate
Rashford has spent two seasons primarily playing on the left or right flank. He needed help to regain his rhythm as a true striker, having started there only six times this season. None was forthcoming. It didn’t help that United were so blatantly unbalanced on the right-side with no one ever bordering on looking like a right-winger.
Mourinho is a master of the final. He wasn’t at Wembley this time, and he likely will be again in future, but he failed himself with his tactics in the approach to the final and such is the freedom given to his attackers by the focus on the defensive side of the game that in fact, players like Rashford are in shackles. Much work is left to be done next season.