A few thoughts after a frustrating end to Manchester United’s season.
Slow start proves fatal
Even the royal wedding provided more excitement than the first half of this FA Cup final. Both Manchester United and Chelsea looked as if they had never kicked a ball before, with the Blues unable to hold possession and United incapable of creating any chances. You could call it a cagey opening to a cup final — but, honestly, it was just bad football.
Neither side particularly deserved a halftime lead, but a moment of madness courtesy of Phil Jones put United in the hole. Eden Hazard burst through on goal after a well-timed counter and Jones chose the absolute worst time to lunge in with a clumsy tackle. Out came a yellow card and Michael Oliver pointed to the spot.
Hazard sent David de Gea the wrong way and Chelsea had their lead.
Chances, chances, chances
Several times this season — most notably in the second Manchester derby — United struggled in the first half only to rescue a result in the second. And that so nearly happened again on Saturday at Wembley.
It was an utterly dominant second half by the men in red. United peppered Chelsea’s goal, but could find no way past Thibaut Courtois. The entire half was one-way traffic in the Chelsea end, with the Blues struggling to even get on the ball and clear their lines. United will rue their finishing all summer.
Alexis Sanchez actually had the ball in the back of the net in the 63rd minute, but it was rightly ruled offside.
But the best chance came twenty minutes later, when an Anthony Martial corner found a wide-open Paul Pogba in the center of Chelsea’s box. Pogba will never have a freer header than this one. Unfortunately, he tamely nodded the ball wide of goal.
By match’s end, United outshot Chelsea 18-6 and almost doubled their possession. Jose Mourinho opted to look on the bright side in his postgame comments to MUTV, “I prefer to lose like today than to lose like we did, for example, at Newcastle [in February].”
Lukaku a huge loss
Many believed that Mourinho was playing coy with Romelu Lukaku’s status in the run-up to Saturday’s final. Yes, Lukaku missed three league matches after picking up an ankle knock against Arsenal — but he still seemed likely to start at Wembley.
When the team-sheet showed Big Rom on the bench, though, the true extent of his injury came into focus. His absence left a gaping hole in the United attack, with Marcus Rashford unable to replace the Belgian’s physicality and nose for goal. United just haven’t looked the same since Lukaku went down last month.
“It was a bit hard for us to play without Lukaku against a team that defends with nine players,” Mourinho told MUTV. “Chelsea are not stupid. They know our team without Lukaku or Fellaini doesn’t have a [physical] presence.”
Lukaku eventually came on in the 73rd minute, but looked rusty and short of fitness while United desperately chased an equalizer.
Conte makes the right call
In what might be his last match as Chelsea manager, Antonio Conte made a brave choice in putting Thibaut Courtois in goal. Okay, that sounds really weird considering that Courtois ranks among the best in the world and starts nearly every match for the Blues.
But, up to this point, Willy Caballero had started in goal during Chelsea’s FA Cup run. The media spilled plenty of ink this week debating whether Conte would give Caballero a chance to finish what he started or harshly drop him in favor of Courtois.
In the first half, Conte himself could have manned the Chelsea goal — United mustered no shots on target. But Courtois made his manager look a genius after the break, preserving his club’s narrow lead with several crucial saves. If not for Courtois’s heroics, United might be celebrating their 13th FA Cup triumph tonight.
Glazers, get out the checkbook
A trophy-less season means a summer of soul-searching for Manchester United. Mourinho’s rebuild still has a ways to go before the club once again sits atop the Premier League. Perhaps Tahith Chong or Angel Gomes will emerge from the youth ranks to take England by storm, but it’s far more likely that improvement will come via significant summer investment.
And, despite failing to score on Saturday, the work must start in defense. Phil Jones stands out as the Wembley goat and proved, once and for all, that he cannot be trusted in big matches.
But, really, United’s defense needs investment all over. Only Eric Bailly looks to have a long-term future as a starter and even he’s found himself out of favor in recent weeks.
So much of the squad’s width relies on Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia that better — and younger — fullbacks are desperately needed.
Another midfielder and winger might also be on the manager’s wishlist. It’s going to be a very expensive summer for the Glazer family.