At the start of this season, we were told that Manchester United’s time had come. Jose Mourinho had won a league title in his second season at Porto, Chelsea (twice), Inter and Real Madrid.
Manchester City were slight favourites for the title, but United had signed the centre forward Mourinho demanded and had recruited his teacher’s pet from Stamford Bridge.
Manchester City’s subsequent unprecedented magnificence may have given Mourinho a fair excuse for not adding to his second-season collection, but that does not excuse United’s distance from the top nor their underperformance in other competitions.
The miserable Champions League exit pushed Mourinho into a funk, and their performance at Wembley was as passive as their recent league performances.
There is a certain irony to Antonio Conte possibly being sacked by Chelsea having finished first and fifth in the league and winning the FA Cup.
Mourinho has won the Europa League and EFL Cup and failed to mount a title challenge in either season and has been given an improved contract in the meantime. If Manchester United have been forced to buy into the cult of Mourinho, next season will be a massive test of his acumen. The reputation is on the line.
True to form, Mourinho could not help but fight his way out of the mess. “I can imagine what you all would say if my team played that way at Wembley,” was his post-match assessment of Chelsea’s style.
Firstly, if we are judging the performance in final victories on style then Mourinho would have to give back a fair proportion of the medals he has earned. Mourinho is a man of finals, and a manager who knows more than most that nobody remembers how you performed on such occasions, only who won.
Secondly, criticising Chelsea’s aesthetics would be easier to swallow if Manchester United had played with any attacking fluency at Wembley - or over the last three months. Mourinho’s team have instead resorted to passive football - trying to nullify the opposition - rather than active football where they try and push their own agenda.
The same happened at Wembley, where United’s main strategy was thwarting Chelsea rather than dictating the tempo of the match.
For all Mourinho’s gripes, why were the second-placed team in the Premier League focused so obviously on nullifying the the fifth-placed team. It allowed Chelsea to take a foothold in the match, and left United playing catch-up. It is no coincidence that such passive football has led to one goal scored in four matches. That isn’t good enough.
There were plenty of people watching in Wembley (including Antonio Conte) and at home who believed that Phil Jones should have been sent off for his tackle on Eden Hazard, from which Chelsea scored the resulting penalty.
That is not true, and Michael Oliver deserves credit for getting the decision spot on. From the beginning of last season, players who made ‘a genuine attempt to play the ball’ in the penalty area could not be shown a red card as well as having a penalty awarded against them, but should instead be booked. Some said that Jones’ challenge was desperate enough to fail to meet the definition of a ‘genuine attempt’, but that too is wrong.
The laws were intended to exclude shirt pulls and deliberate, cynical trips. Any slide in the direction of the ball is sufficient.
Supporting a Mourinho-managed club requires a supporter to buy into Mourinho as the omnipotent force.
Chelsea supporters know only too well about total buy-in to Mourinho. He is the word, and the word is good.
Looking at the reaction to Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial’s struggles from Manchester United fans on social media, Mourinho’s PR game stays strong.
Both players were attacked for their displays, and for failing to even do the basics right. If either (or both) leaves the club this summer, permanently or on loan, Mourinho will retain the support of most fans.
But that entirely overlooks the role Mourinho has played in their decline this season.
Not only have both been castigated in public by their manager - at the ages of 20 and 22, remember - but have played in a team painfully slow at getting the ball from front to back.
If that wasn’t enough, Mourinho bought a 29-year-old in their position in January.
Alexis Sanchez was also rotten at Wembley, but escapes Mourinho’s censure because he bought Sanchez.
In these situations, ask what Pep Guardiola would do.
Manchester City’s manager rarely, if ever, criticises his young players in public and gives them both the creative freedom to express themselves in the final third and the patience to make mistakes and come back stronger.
For the record, Leroy Sane is a month younger than Martial.
Look at the improvement in one and struggles of the other.
Neither Martial nor Rashford are faultless, but this has happened too often to Mourinho to be coincidence.
When he was appointed, concerns were raised for Manchester United’s young players.
Eric Bailly is 24, and has been frozen out. Luke Shaw is 22, and has been frozen out.
Rashford and Martial are both fighting for their futures. The accusation still stands up.