FA Cup final post-match microphone problems symbolic of the distortion between manager and players
Malfunctioning Manchester United experiencing technical difficulties under Jose Mourinho
The occasion was rife with symbolism. As Jose Mourinho came in to conduct his press conference at Wembley, the equipment malfunctioned. There was interference on the microphones. The Manchester United manager could not be heard. The temptation is to say that his players had not listened to him; certainly not before producing their abject first-half performance in the FA Cup final.
Yet that slant, exonerating Mourinho, would suggest his charges have not heeded his words rather too often. Explaining United is not easy, different games lending themselves to different conclusions. A season that ought to have engendered positivity ended on a negative. A year that seemed to be a step in the right direction concluded with United losing their footing again.
Because, while the second half of the campaign has included wins over each of their major rivals, the last four months have been pockmarked with wretched showings: Tottenham Hotspur (in the league), Newcastle United, Sevilla (at home), West Bromwich Albion, Brighton & Hove Albion and then the opening 45 minutes against Chelsea.
The classic Mourinho teams were notable for their relentless consistency. This one is prone to no-show performances. United have become English football’s unexciting enigmas, never bringing the possibility of scintillating football that Manchester City and Liverpool can offer, but sometimes delivering inexplicably dismal displays.
Along the way, a manager noted for his own consistency has lost certain distinctions. Mourinho lost a major final in England for the first time and ended a full season in management without a trophy for just the second time. He had also won the league title in his second year everywhere, a period in his management that seemed to offer peak Mourinho, when his players were assembled and drilled, but had not yet tired of him.
If City’s 100-point campaign may have rendered that an impossibility, it is notable how United squandered the chance to get the sort of points total that champions often record, and not merely by losing to all three promoted clubs. Even beating the two Albions, West Brom and Brighton, would have taken them to 87. Instead, they ended on 81. They would still have been second, but it could have been a better second.
And that is the concern. United could, and should, be better. They look less than the sum of their parts too often. Alexis Sanchez, scorer of a mere three goals in 18 games, has come to embody them; just not in the way they imagined when his signing was presented as a coup.
Once the microphones worked properly, Mourinho talked about the difficulty of breaking down Chelsea’s packed defence without a target man. The thought occurred that neither City nor Liverpool, the league’s two most prolific teams, possesses anyone remotely resembling one. They have been slicker and quicker, relying more on aesthetically appealing football than aiming for a big man.
It appeared to form part of a complaint about Romelu Lukaku, the towering attacker who had pronounced himself unfit to start. The Belgian had seemed one of Mourinho’s closest allies. So had Eric Bailly, another of his signings, but United’s best defender began on the bench while Phil Jones, who was unable to cope with the terrific Eden Hazard, conceded the decisive penalty. Mourinho said recently that he was giving chances to players who could go to the World Cup final. Yet with the FA Cup final beckoning, it was an argument that did not stand up to scrutiny then, let alone now.
It furthered concerns about Mourinho’s management. It feels more decisive than it did. He seems more dissatisfied than he used to. Those who respond best to him, like Nemanja Matic and Ashley Young, tend to be in the second half of their careers. None of which offers optimism for the future. Such is the paradox of Mourinho’s Manchester United. In theory, this ought to be an upbeat season. Yet it ended with the kind of underwhelming feeling that scarcely suggested better times are coming.