“In a bad season where at times I felt my team was the worst team in the world, when at times I felt I was the worst manager in the world, we managed to win three trophies.
Now I don’t want to see any football, or any international friendlies.”
José Mourinho looked shattered after victory in Stockholm. The final on its own would have been enough but events leading up to the game required much more from the manager, and he appeared to have taken that weight from his team. Manchester United were focussed and the players delivered with assurance, which felt welcomely unfamiliar in a frustrating season. The rest for players and especially the manager will be revitalising.
Assessing Mourinho’s first year at United is complicated. That might sound like an excuse already, but to ignore the complications does a disservice to the job four disjointed years on. United are like those rich kids whose parents got divorced – what do they really have to worry about?
Antonio Conte took over at Chelsea and rinsed the league (all the best next season with it). Meanwhile, Mourinho lurched from incoming title contender quickly to statesman, apologist and more apologies, football included. Besides a brief period of liberated, attacking intent, United have regressed into a familiarly sedate side, but with a backbone. The parody of draws at home are unhelpful as they are inexcusable and, along with a poor record against the top six, make for uncomfortable summarising however you slice it.
United didn’t trouble an unremarkable top four with rivals also in flux and spurned generous opportunities to make a nuisance of themselves. Bogged down with Thursday/Sunday games and stopgap motivations, United lost any verve and momentum Mourinho momentarily brought. The job was bigger than him – but now likely only for a season.
Victory at Wembley and, crucially, Stockholm gives Mourinho and his players some valuable relief, downtime and a suitable platform. Mourinho will now bring in preferable players, and quickly – decisiveness that’s still a novelty to supporters. Mourinho’s transfers last summer were largely a success and in key areas. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s mixed season is indicative of year one, Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimović and – goodness – Paul Pogba give a better indication at what is to come.
Gambling on a cup final to secure Champions League and binning off the league was not the plan. It has paid off. Defeat to Ajax wouldn’t have detracted from the difference Mourinho has made to United already, and what he intends to do, but progression would have been that much harder. The new manager is patiently bringing order to the chaos of an expensive, messy fallout. It isn’t a quick fix and the club was arrogant not to appoint Mourinho sooner. It would be fascinating to know how United would have operated with Mourinho immediately after Alex Ferguson, and Ferguson’s insistence on David Moyes is probably a good clue. Manchester United can now look firmly forward for the first time post-Ferguson.
Some of Mourinho’s best achievements slip under the radar of sixth and cups. In order and tellingly not exhaustive: removing Wayne Rooney with minimal fuss while allowing him his record; protecting a still developing Marcus Rashford; the aforementioned summer transfers and patience; handling of De Gea, or rather Sergio Romero; speaking well; connecting with fans while also calling out Old Trafford for being flat at times. Plenty going on there. The slamming of Shaw and Mkhitaryan gets the headlines, the reliability and performance of Marcos Rojo compared to last season is more noteworthy of what is maybe happening behind the scenes.
Familiar failings crept back in as the season played out threatening to completely derail steady if unremarkable headway, with everyone reverting to type including the manager. Mourinho built up a fundamental lack of trust and resilience,