The records books will say that Manchester United lost the 137th FA Cup by a single goal, a penalty. But you’ll know, and we’ll know, that they lost it thanks to a first half performance of almost inexplicable incoherence. Chelsea weren’t great, but they didn’t have to be. They just had to take any chance they were given, then hold United at arm’s length. Both came far too easily.
United set-up in a weird lop-sided formation, with Alexis Sanchez and Marcus Rashford moving around up front and Ander Herrera spending most of his time following Eden Hazard around. Going forward, the plan seemed to be to wait for Chelsea to make a mistake. Unfortunately, after a nervous and imprecise opening twenty minutes, it was United that dropped the first clanger.
We may never know why Phil Jones decided to back away from the ball, when Chelsea clipped it forward towards Hazard. Maybe he decided that he could beat the Belgian in a footrace. Maybe he just did a really big sneeze. Either way, he presented Hazard with the ball and with space to run into, a situation that rarely ends well for the defending team.
That was the first calamity. The second came shortly afterwards, when Jones charged back into the box and decided to go for the ball with his wrong leg, from the wrong side. That, too, rarely ends well. Hazard went down under the challenge, picked himself up, and stroked the penalty home.
Once behind, United upped the energy a little, but their passing remained sloppy and the absence of Lukaku was glaring. Without the big striker to aim at, United’s attacking approach seemed to consist of little more than shuttling the ball from side to side, waiting for somebody to get bored, take a shot from 20 yards, and miss.
A glimmer of hope arrive right at the end of the first half, as Chelsea overcommitted to their own free-kick and left United with space to counter. Pogba did well to escape the attentions of Chelsea’s midfield, but Alexis Sanchez’s touch was heavy, and when the ball eventually fell to Marcus Rashford, he could only poke the ball into a defender. A tiny cherry of almost-hope, on top of a stodgy first-half cake entirely devoid of sugar or spice.
Whatever happened at half-time — a rocket from Mourinho, a couple of quiet words from Michael Carrick — United came out looking almost like a football team. They bossed the opening 20 minutes: Rashford hammered a shot straight at Courtois, and Sanchez had the ball in the net after a scrap at a corner. However, the linesman’s flag was up.
All of this pressure meant space up the other end, and United were lucky not to concede a second in the 70th minute. A swift Chelsea break ended with Marcos Alonso shooting straight at David de Gea, then Victor Moses chipping the ball into Ashley Young’s arm. Corner, said the referee. Penalty, said Moses. Corner, said VAR, a touch surprisingly. Then a minute later, Rashford ran clear through, only to be denied by a well-spread Courtois.
On came Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku, and on pushed United. Martial had a couple of snapshots blocked, and Courtois nearly made a horrible mess of a 30-yard drive from Nemanja Matic. Then the big chance came: Pogba drifted away from his marker and found himself free to meet a corner. He put his header wide.
With time running out, Mourinho withdrew the battered, bloodied Jones and threw on Juan Mata. But Chelsea were set in their defensive shape, and United, forever taking a touch too many, didn’t have the wit to break them down. Matic put a header over the bar in the 92nd minute, and the game was done.
This loss ensured United finished the season without a trophy. Perhaps more importantly, it reinforced the sense that United have finished the season without a plan, or any real sense of how to win a game of football. They were hideous in the first half, and even though were okay in the second, they were frustrating to watch throughout. So ends a strange campaign. It’s going to be an important summer.