Long-term football memories come from winning. That can be a single game, but the trophies are the inescapably important thing. Manchester United fans thought they were being given such memories once again this season with an FA Cup, accepting that the style of play was the sacrificial lamb for Jose Mourinho.
Yet, things didn’t go to plan at Wembley in a game which acts as a microcosm of Man United’s laborious, inconsistent and underwhelming season.
Significant progress has been made. The Reds jumped four positions in the Premier League, finishing second. In three seasons since the turn of the century, Mourinho’s United would have finished as Champions.
But their noisy neighbours Manchester City have turned up the decibel level so loud this season that Mourinho’s eardrums will be bleeding. They have been stunningly good; both to watch and at winning.
Premier League - 2nd
With new signing Romelu Lukaku scoring freely and Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan enjoying assist after assist, United’s start to the league campaign was blisteringly good. Pogba and Lukaku linked up immediately and the title chase looked to be close.
But United fell away quickly, most notably after a humiliating defeat to Huddersfield Town. By December, even Mourinho had conceded that the title race was over.
The fact that United played with great tempo and style at the start of the season, scoring four on a regular basis, contributed to the unrelenting sense of disappointment in the months that followed.
In hindsight, United’s Premier League performance has, on the face of things, been fine. Finishing 2nd, Mourinho mastered League victories against Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, mainly, but not exclusively, in the second half of the season.
Mourinho’s side finished with 81 points, 12 more than they did last season. United have finished seventh, fourth, fifth and sixth before this campaign. Undoubted progress, then.
But the side’s fall down was two-fold; inconsistency, and an inability to win the so-called ‘easy’ games. United suffered defeats to all three of the promoted sides and West Bromwich Albion.
Players’ individual inconsistency, particularly that of Paul Pogba who will always be the star man and thus attract excessive criticism, translated into a sickening inconsistency from the side that Mourinho has seemed utterly helpless in fixing.
A 4-1 thumping of Newcastle was followed by a 1-0 defeat to FC Basel, while three consecutive victories, including two comebacks, against Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Liverpool, were followed by a 2-1 loss against Sevilla in the Champions League.
The most prominent example made itself clear after Pogba had stormed out of the dressing room at the Etihad with a point to prove and netted twice in one of the best comebacks in Manchester derby history. United won 3-2 before a dreary performance against a terrible West Brom side ended in another 1-0 loss.
Of course, a win over Arsenal in the last minute didn’t give United momentum. Rather, they were beaten by Brighton.
United saw out their season in drab fashion, allowing it to dribble away from them with a loss to Brighton, a bore draw at West Ham and then a 1-0 win against Watford at home.
Finishing 2nd, the complaint is not that United should have beaten a sensationally good City side to the title, but rather it is that United could and should have been better, against smaller sides in particular.
Mourinho’s team remains one of unfulfilled potential. Pogba, Martial, Rashford, Sanchez and Lindelof are all players who can perform better than they did, and so the season has been one of frustration for United. Simultaneously, such good performances in certain games has given United fans a taste of what is possible from this team. That such performances are irregular is a great frustration.
Champions League - round of 16
United’s failure in the Champions League has defined their season. Had they not suffered a humiliatingly poor 2-1 defeat to an unimpressive Sevilla side in the round of 16, and progressed only one round further, it’s likely that United fans would head into the World Cup summer with more anticipation for next season.
But such was the nature of the defeat, with United on the front foot for only 10 minutes over the 180-minute tie, that it has taken a long time to recover from. Mourinho’s tactics were almost unexplainable and the players’ performances, both home and away, were atrocious.
This followed a pretty successful group stages, with five wins and one defeat, including a 3-0 dismantling of FC Basel and a 4-1 trouncing of CSKA Moscow.
It was the two legs against Sevilla prevented United’s season from being a success in terms of mood, not the Cup final defeat. United fans expected better, particularly when they drew an out-of-form Sevilla side who they should have progressed past with relative ease. It is the disappointment of the Champions League campaign that characterised an underwhelming and frustrating season for United.
EFL Cup - knocked out by Bristol City in QF
FA Cup - runners-up
United crashed out to Bristol City in the EFL Cup during the festive period. Such is the busy nature of that time that they quickly moved on, but only because there were other matches to complain about including 2-2 draws against Burnley and Leicester and a goalless affair against Southampton.
By the FA Cup Final at the end of the season, United fans had virtually forgotten about their woes in the south-west of England. That was because of a Wembley semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur that showed just how good this team can be, with match-winning performances from Pogba and Sanchez.
Prior to that, it had been a comfortable Cup run with no serious challenges. The performance in the final wasn’t representative of the quality in the side and though there was some attacking intent in the second-half, United looked lacklustre at times, an unforgivable sin in a Cup final.
United’s refusal to go out and attack games in the early stages plagued them for much of the season after a start to the campaign in which they benefitted from exactly that tactic. It was the same issue at Wembley, and Mourinho’s midfield was far too deep throughout.
The most frustrating issue, though, was that the Portuguese boss had three relatively simple matches in which to prepare for the club’s biggest game. But instead, he wasted games against Brighton, West Ham and Watford by playing deadwood like Matteo Darmian and Daley Blind and didn’t ease Marcus Rashford into the striking role he had to play in the final to replace the injured Lukaku.
Rashford was asked to play in the Lukaku role, despite a substantially different physique and talent. And so, when United got to Wembley, they looked like a side out of their rhythm, only through fault of their own.
In 90 minutes, the FA Cup transformed from a redeeming feature of the season to one final stab of disappointment.
Style of play
United finished second in the league, but ranked sixth for shots, shots on target, passes, touches, possession and pass completion.
This has been a far from complete United side who have managed to see off all their opposition bar one sensational City side.
That can mean either one of two things; United are very close to being Champions again because even in a poor season they finish second, or United are papering over the cracks and so will never re-evaluate and start afresh and so won’t be Champions for some time.
United have been stodgy, boring and lifeless far too often, and because of the quality of the players at Mourinho's disposal and the money spent by him, that is a fact that cannot persist into next season.
Fans do not expect Fergie-esque or Guardiola-esque football from a Mourinho United side, but they expect better than what they are being given. The Reds cannot seem to win games in which they are in control of. When they concede, it's a different story, hence why comebacks were so frequent in the latter stages of the season.
Better players will improve the team and its style. But simultaneously, Mourinho must give his side some attacking structure. It often seems that Mourinho's forward players, in fact, have too much freedom, leading to them stepping on each other's feet.
One of United’s greatest issues has been conceding from set pieces. For a side managed by Mourinho with the 3rd tallest team in the Premier League (as ranked by CIES Football Observatory, with an average height of 6ft 1in), their record has been appalling.
The Reds lost 11 points by conceding goals from set pieces, and 82% of those goals were against smaller teams.
Such an issue plagued United all season, from a 2-2 draw with Stoke City to the 1-0 loss against West Brom.
Mourinho was often saved by goalkeeper David de Gea. The Spaniard saved 79.9% of shots he faced, the highest of any goalkeeper in the league.
And so while United’s defensive record looks impressive, their defence has been frequently shaky. Their more attacking players have been forced to help out in defence to cover for two ageing failed wingers at full-back and centre-back pairings who rarely look comfortable.
That has led to the team’s stars of Pogba, Sanchez and others dropping back near the defence to start the attacks themselves, and thus United have often struggled when they finally do get up the pitch and the opposition have had plenty of time to set themselves up to defend.
Best player - David de Gea
Undoubtedly vital in Man United’s best games and even more so in their worst. Bad results and bad performances have been salvaged by the Spaniard’s utter brilliance and, for many, de Gea has established himself as the world’s best this season.
Though United fans thought it unlikely that de Gea could further improve from his already fantastic consistency of performances, but it’s been his best season at the club. His finest performance was at the Emirates as he denied Arsenal with a string of world-class saves and somehow managed to be the best player on the pitch despite his team winning 3-1.
That being said, Romelu Lukaku deserves a mention. When the Belgian has been unavailable or out-of-form, United have fared far worse.
The Reds’ worst form came from mid-October into late December, exactly when Lukaku hit his rough patch. But after a woeful display in the Manchester derby where his hold-up play, or lack thereof, was seriously exposed, it has been clear that the 24-year-old has worked on his game.
He’s improved with each performance, becoming more important to United’s general play, not simply goalscoring. With 28 goals in his debut campaign at Old Trafford and nine assists, it’s been a very good season for Lukaku, whom without United would have struggled.
There is still room for improvement from him, and honourable mentions must also go to Nemanja Matic, who has been consistently stable in central midfield, and Paul Pogba. Despite some poor performances and disappointing inconsistency, Pogba has still been one of the best players in Mourinho’s team and an underwhelming Pogba can perform better than most of his teammates.
Most improved player - Jesse Lingard
Though his impact on the side curtailed towards the end of the season, Lingard’s importance to the side has rocketed over the course of the season and his goalscoring contribution and work rate has made him one of Mourinho’s most trusted players.
That he started the FA Cup Final over Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Juan Mata shows how highly Mourinho now values the Wythenshawe-born attacking midfielder.
His purple patch that began at the end of November with a wonderful solo goal against Watford continued into December, where he hit two at the Emirates, the winner against West Brom and another double, including a last-minute equaliser, against Burnley. January saw Lingard score three more.
He’ll now head to the World Cup with England and deservedly so. No one would have expected that 12 months ago.
Coming up next season
It’ll need to be a very good transfer window with a clear plan for Man United to be anywhere near their local rivals City next season.
Mourinho’s rumoured targets include many of the world’s best players, with silly season already having begun. Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Fred looks likely to be playing at Old Trafford next season while Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld has already been strongly linked to the club.
Who the personnel is will be less important than their positions. United desperately need new full-backs. Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia are ageing and not good enough, however much Mourinho trusts them.
Their attacking impotency drags United back and neither is defensively solid enough to make up for such attacking weakness. Across Manchester at City, Pep Guardiola invested in his full-backs last summer and the side benefitted hugely.
It is United’s defence, as it has been for some years, which needs the most work. Centrally, Smalling and Jones are not a title-winning partnership. Eric Bailly should be starting under Mourinho alongside a new signing.
Mourinho will certainly look to sign at least one midfielder, and potentially another if Marouane Fellaini doesn’t sign a new contract at the club, which is now looking likely.
Meanwhile, his pursuit of a right-winger will continue having looked to sign Ivan Perisic of Inter Milan last season. United have consistently looked unbalanced due to their lack of a natural right-sided forward despite having at least five players who can naturally play on the left.
Recent rumours have also indicated that Mourinho may look to sign a target man striker, which could mean even fewer chances for young talents Rashford and Martial.
The latter could leave the club, with Carrick retiring, Fellaini set to go and Darmian and Blind set to be sold.
On the coaching staff, as well, there will be changes. Carrick arrives into Mourinho’s first team set-up immediately after hanging up his boots while long-term assistant manager to Mourinho, Rui Faria, is leaving to pursue his own management career after a short break from the game.
U18s manager Kieran McKenna will be promoted by Mourinho after two seasons in charge of United’s youngsters. He’s done a brilliant job in terms of both development and style of football with the under-18s, guiding them to the U18 Premier League North title this season. Mourinho has clearly been impressed.
Sampdoria fitness coach Stefano Rapetti will also be a new addition to the coaching staff with Mourinho not replacing Faria directly, but instead with a collection of new figures structured in a way that allows him to avoid appointing a replacement.
United fans will hope that fresh faces in both the playing squad and coaching set-up can lead to even better results, and a much-improved style of play next season. Expectations will certainly not be low.