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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Manchester United's season in review: A squad full of attacking talent but light on attacking threat

Saturday's meek surrender to Chelsea in the FA Cup final and a second-place finish in the league shouldn't cloud judgement over positives of United's season though

Manchester United's Marcus Rashford looks dejected after the 1-0 FA Cup final defeat to Chelsea at Wembley. David Klein / Reuters
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford looks dejected after the 1-0 FA Cup final defeat to Chelsea at Wembley. David Klein / Reuters

Amid the frustration of Manchester United losing the 2018 FA Cup final to Chelsea, United’s followers asked the same questions about the way the season had faded, about the style of football and about why their team have to go behind for them to start playing. Time and again this season, United have only started to perform when a goal down. Sometimes, as in the semi-final when Tottenham Hotspur took the lead, United have needed to be at their compelling best to come back and triumph.

In the Premier League, United were dreadful at relegation-threatened Crystal Palace and went 2-0 down before scoring three times to win the game in a dramatic late finish which echoed the spirit of Alex Ferguson’s finest sides. United did the same at Manchester City last month. From 2-0 down to 3-2 up. It is baffling that a side has the quality to do that against the runaway league leaders – and then lose to the three promoted sides and bottom-of-the-table West Bromwich Albion.

Sometimes, United leave it too late – as against Sevilla in the Uefa Champions League last 16 where they only started playing 160 minutes into 180 minutes of the tie after going behind. That remains the low point of a frustrating season.

When Eden Hazard’s penalty gave Chelsea the lead after 21 minutes in Saturday's final it wasn't until the second half that Jose Mourinho’s men registered a first shot at the well guarded Chelsea goal. David de Gea had attempted more passes than Alexis Sanchez in the first half.

United have so much attacking talent and yet so little attacking threat. They struggled to break down a Chelsea side who were adept at keeping United away from their area. Mourinho felt that the absence of Romelu Lukaku and Marouanne Fellaini made the Blues' task easier on a warm and sunny London afternoon. Mourinho had won 12 of his 14 cup finals, but his side couldn’t come from behind against his former team.

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What is also baffling is that when United start on the front foot and go ahead, they almost always win. In 38 league games this season, United only failed to win twice after taking the lead – at Stoke City and Leicester City. United’s best sides were often attacking from the first whistle, not this one though.

The cup final defeat and United’s performances since winning April’s Manchester derby should not cloud United’s entire season. Mourinho’s team picked up an impressive 81 points and a second-place finish. There have been wins against champions City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal. It’s the best United side since Ferguson left in 2013, but it’s not yet a great United side. The style of football seldom enthrals.

The gap in class between United and the best was shown in the first competitive game of the season against Real Madrid in Skopje. Such is football, that Madrid team could end up losing to a Liverpool side who were well beaten by United in their most recent league meeting in Saturday’s Champions League final.

That will do nothing for the mood among United fans, who are already frustrated that Manchester City’s greatest ever side won the league by 19 points and that Liverpool are going to Kiev with a chance of winning a sixth European Cup. Plenty of United fans were singing "Viva Ronaldo" on Saturday in the hope that their former player can beat Liverpool. It’s slightly desperate, but United are slightly desperate. And it was a desperate end to a season as Chelsea, for the second time in 11 years, beat United 1-0 in an FA Cup final at Wembley. Both of those games were dull.

United won the league and the Champions League a year after that 2007 game – against Chelsea in Moscow a decade ago on Monday – but few can see United as European champions in a year’s time.

Then again, few could see United as domestic double winners a year after they last finished second in the league and lost the FA Cup final, in 1995. Fortunes can change quickly in football, but even such a monumental change seems unlikely right now as fans fail to see through the fog of despondency after Saturday’s defeat.

Football lends itself to disappointment. And there’s a lot of disappointment around Manchester United right now.