* Within minutes of Manchester United lifting the FA Cup trophy, their first since 2004, and first touch of any silverware since 2013, any positive feeling a neutral will have held for the club evaporated. The BBC, the Daily Telegraph and numerous other outlets, in unison, reported the news that Louis van Gaal would be sacked, with Jose Mourinho appointed as his successor.
It is an incredibly classless act from United. This site and this author cannot attest to being Van Gaal’s biggest fans, nor can we claim not to have joined the rafts of those calling for the Dutchman to be removed. But like this? In this way? On this day? It is the latest in a long line of remarkable managerial gaffes from the club. Could this not have been done in December, when it was first reported? Van Gaal has been manager in name only since the turn of the year, and has, in actuality, simply been an interim, a stop-gap, until Mourinho’s arrival. The club must have known it for the last six months. Instead, the news broke during Van Gaal’s finest moment. The whole debacle has been handled terribly from United’s point.
Van Gaal deserves his critics for his two-year tenure, but, equally, he deserved his time atop the summit. The Dutchman has infuriated, confused and baffled us, but each negative does not justify this treatment from the club who appointed him to clear up a mess they created of their own volition. The United boardroom watched as Van Gaal endured criticism – some warranted, some not – until his crowning moment of a trophy in his fourth country as manager. They proceeded to walk off with another man into the sunset while he was still celebrating.
* If that was to be Van Gaal’s final game in charge of Manchester United, it brings an unpopular and controversial reign full circle. The Dutchman has attracted ire for a host of decisions, comments and performances since being appointed in summer 2014, but the one undeniable virtue of his spell, one which even the most ardent critic cannot reject, rescued him in his biggest game. Not for the first time under Van Gaal, that famous Old Trafford conveyor belt of talent emerged and shouldered responsibility.
The presence of Marcus Rashford in the starting line-up and Jesse Lingard on the substitutes’ bench meant that United’s proud record of including at least one academy graduate in a matchday squad is extended to 3,804 games. That Rashford was one of the best players on the pitch and Lingard was the eventual match-winner will delight the red half of Manchester, and rightfully so. Van Gaal’s argument for staying at Old Trafford would have centred around the development of United’s young stars under his tutelage. Rashford, Lingard, Paddy McNair, Donald Love, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, James Weir and Joe Riley have been handed first-team opportunities this season alone.
Many use Van Gaal’s faith in youth as a negative. They claim the Dutchman has been forced into using these players due to injuries, and because he did not act sufficiently in the transfer market. While there could be a semblance of truth to such arguments, they ignore the manager’s reputation at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich for developing young talent. There are plenty of reasons to denigrate the reign of Van Gaal, but admitting the positives of his spell does not necessarily mean he must be called a success.
This must be the biggest deterrent to appointing Mourinho as Van Gaal’s successor. Few managers would have placed as much trust and shown as much faith in youth as Van Gaal, but the Portuguese sits at the opposite end of the spectrum. This is an incredibly promising era for the younger generation at Old Trafford; Mourinho could bring that to an abrupt halt.
* The latest installment of ‘Is Wayne Rooney actually a midfielder?’ was rather entertaining. Each diagonal pass was lauded by the pundits, each blade of grass covered hailed by the press, each mistake and flaw ignored. Only when Rooney pressed further up the pitch from his previous deeper-lying role did he actually affect the game. Beforehand, he was little more than an illustrious passenger.
“An excellent ball from what looked like Paul Scholes,” noted the BBC’s Martin Keown during the first half. Rooney had just completed a pass of no more than 25 yards which Antonio Valencia had to strain to control on his chest. “Rooney has been the best player on the pitch,” Chris Waddle told Radio 5live. Ruud Gullit added his considerable weight behind the worship. The 30-year-old is undeniably a favourite of the media, but his actual performance was somewhat vacuous until ten minutes from time.
Rooney had four shots, made one key pass, and just one tackle and one interception. He was praised, and hailed as the man of the match by his contemporaries. Midfield partner Michael Carrick made four fewer passes – at a higher rate of accuracy – made the same number of key passes and tackles, and made one more interception. Crystal Palace midfielder Yohan Cabaye made one more key pass, three more tackles and two more interceptions. His name was barely uttered before his 71st-minute removal.
Rooney such a clever player. Clever in that he knows people confuse "always playing crossfield balls" with "being a good midfielder."
— Rory Smith (@RorySmithTimes) May 21, 2016
Diagonal passes look great, but wayward ones to teammates no more than ten yards away do not. Only when Rooney was forced to move into the space left by Rashford’s injury-enforced substitution did he actually impress. The 30-year-old’s run for United’s instant equaliser was excellent, and from thereon he pushed his team to victory. He was the best player on the field in the last 40 minutes or so, but flattered to deceive earlier in his deeper role. One only hopes Roy Hodgson does not share the opinion of Keown, Waddle, Gullit, et al.
* As the age-old football adage goes: The best referees are the ones who go unnoticed. If Saturday evening proved anything, it was that Martin Clattenburg does not prescribe to the conventional wisdom.
When a referee forces you to have even the smallest amount of sympathy for Alan Pardew, you know something has gone awry. Clattenburg made two glaring mistakes in the first half, forgetting the golden rule of officiating each time. On 18 minutes, Connor Wickham wriggled free of Chris Smalling’s attentions, before being dragged to the ground by the centre-half. The forward immediately rose to his feet, and was bearing down on goal. Instead of playing the advantage, Clattenburg had blown for a Palace free-kick. Mistake number one.
Just over half an hour later, Joel Ward burst down the opposite wing, and Marcos Rojo came across to deal with the threat. Ward was too fast for the Argentinean, and shrugged his challenge off before racing to the byline. But Clattenburg pulled play back for a foul. The award of a free-kick was scant consolation once more for Palace, who may well have created a goalscoring opportunity without the referee’s intervention. Mistake number two, and the first half was not even over.
* As mentioned above, Smalling failed to control Wickham in the first half. He was booked for their first altercation, and was forced to play the remainder of the match on a tightrope. Most would approach such a task tentatively, but Smalling opted to run across with his eyes closed. The result was predictable.
With the end of the first half of extra-time imminent, Smalling’s slow reactions and lack of awareness again caught him flat-footed. Yannick Bolasie skilfully turned him on the halfway line, and the defender had no option but to drag the Palace winger down. Smalling was dismissed, and United faced an uphill battle with the scores level.
His teammates rescued him in the aftermath, and Smalling’s poor performance will now be forgotten. It should not be. The 26-year-old did not make a single (legal) tackle throughout the game, and often struggled with the physicality of Wickham and the trickery of Bolasie and Wilfried Zaha. Such an impressive season was almost eradicated within two stupid moments.
It serves as a reminder that Smalling is still developing. Van Gaal’s current system is set up to perfectly accentuate his strengths, hence him being a regular fixture in the Premier League’s joint-best defence by goals conceded. While his partner is a makeshift stand-in until the summer, it should not be overlooked when Smalling endures a difficult game. They are fare rarer than they once were, but he does still struggle at times. It almost cost his side dearly on this occasion.
* Confusion reigned before kick-off at Wembley. Wilfried Zaha, in perhaps the most important game of his club career thus far, was seen crying on the pitch. The common consensus was that the former Manchester United winger had suffered an injury, and would not be able to feature. Minutes later, he was named in the Palace starting line-up. What was all the commotion?
As it happened, Zaha was seemingly overcome with emotion at the occasion and at the support he had received. “We did some nice personal things in the dressing room and we’ve tried to make this special,” said manager Alan Pardew before the game. Considering Zaha has been criticised for ‘money-grabbing’ and numerous other ills previously, his reaction was a lovely antidote.
“We need the players to understand that this is a special, special day for the club,” Pardew added. “It’s not just not another game. You can’t treat it like that.” Zaha most certainly did not. The England international had a point to prove against his former employers, and was one of Palace’s brightest sparks on the counter-attack. He had three shots, made two key passes, completed six dribbles – more than any other player – and made three tackles. While Wickham and Bolasie were fleeting threats to the United defence, Zaha was a constant thorn in their side. His return to Selhurst Park has benefited him immensely after a difficult spell in Manchester.
* Another with a point to prove, albeit in far different circumstances, was Jason Puncheon. The second-half substitute had as much fortune as Zaha in doing so, too.
“He’s got anger in his belly – that’s not a bad thing if he’s angry and comes off the bench,” said Pardew before the game. Having started the previous nine games, Puncheon was relegated to a role on the bench in the FA Cup final at Wembley. If the instinctive response to that is not ‘anger’, then something is terribly wrong.
Within six minutes of his introduction for Cabaye, Puncheon unleashed every ounce of anger, frustration and vexation in one single kick to hand Palace the lead. Having placed himself at the far post, the 29-year-old was expertly found by Ward, before bringing the ball down and powering and effort beyond David de Gea. The Spaniard’s goal had been impregnable until that point, but he stood no chance in stopping Puncheon’s strike. It was all a part of Pardew’s grand master plan. Right?
* Oh, Alan. Only The King could turn a wonderful goal for Crystal Palace into a moment of ridicule. His dancing celebration at Puncheon’s opener was cringeworthy, and neatly encapsulated the man: wherever, whenever, it must be about Alan.
Much of the build-up had surrounded the Palace manager. After defeat in the 1990 Cup final as a player and heartbreak in the 2006 version as a manager, this year represented his third opportunity at lifting the trophy. He basked in the publicity, painting himself as a beacon for English managers. “It will not just be good for me and the club to win it but good for English coaches,” he said in midweek. “English coaches and managers get a bad press.”
If they do – which they really do not – they bring it on themselves in Pardew’s case. Footage during the game showed that Pardew’s dance may have provided Juan Mata and United with the perfect motivation to initiate a fightback. In the midst of celebrating the opener, Pardew had built a rod for his own back.
— footbilly (@footbilly) May 21, 2016
This campaign can now only be described as a failure for Palace. Reaching the FA Cup final did not save Tim Sherwood at Aston Villa, nor Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool, nor numerous others before him. Having tipped Palace to compete for European qualification this season, Pardew has presided over a run of form which sees them finish 15th, five points above the relegation zone. Yet his reward will be a new contract this summer.
* “They’re getting dominated,” Danny Murphy told the BBC at half-time, describing Crystal Palace’s performance in the face of the might of Manchester United. The Reds had enjoyed 68% of the possession and had had ten attempts on goal to Palace’s three. But the Eagles had had more attempts on target, and looked a potent threat on the counter-attack with the pace and trickery of Zaha and Bolasie on either wing. What had Murphy seen that differed to any other United performance under Van Gaal? Did he expect Palace to take the game to their opponents, dominate possession and create chances at will? The match played out as everyone had predicted: United would meander in possession, waiting for the opposition to make a mistake. Palace would defend resolutely before attempting to hit them on the break. They were “getting dominated” purely because it was part of their game plan, not due to United excellence.
* After a sterling performance on the biggest stage, Clattenburg was again called into action midway through the first half of extra-time. Rooney, determined to secure his first FA Cup winner’s medal, contended for a loose ball with Puncheon. The United captain arrived late, catching the Palace midfielder. With Rooney already on a booking, the referee had a decision to make.
A free-kick was awarded, but a second yellow card was not forthcoming for the 30-year-old. The BBC commentary team were united in their relief. “You don’t want to see a player get sent off in a Cup final,” said Keown. “I don’t think it was worthy of a second yellow,” added Guy Mowbray.
If a player commits an act which breaks the rules, they should be punished. Whether Rooney had already been booked or not was irrelevant. He caught Puncheon late, and would likely have been cautioned if that was his first offence.
Coincidentally, there were no complaints from either Keown or Mowbray when Smalling was rightfully sent off for a second bookable offence. “You don’t want to see a player get sent off in a Cup final” – unless they deserve to be, of course.
* As the final game of United’s 2015/16 campaign drew to a close, so did the experiment of Daley Blind at centre-half. The Dutchman has acclimatised to the role somewhat positively under the circumstances, but he is not fit for purpose in the future.
It is one of the largest blots on the Van Gaal copybook that Blind has completed a full season in the centre of defence, having made more appearances than any other United player. This is a club aiming to win the Premier League, compete in the Champions League and progress in domestic cups, and their main defender is a left-back who can play in central midfield. That the club did not sign a recognised centre-half in the summer was baffling. That Van Gaal opted not to do so in January was bizarre. Blind, like Michael Carrick, should provide able cover in that position. He should not be first-choice.
On 35 minutes, Blind’s dallying in defence almost allowed Palace to score the opener. The Dutchman swiveled on the spot, taking far too long to release the ball, before Zaha dispossessed him and bore down on goal. The winger lost his balance under pressure from Rooney as he looked to shoot, thus sparing Blind’s blushes. It is the latest of a number of high-profile recent mistakes from Blind, and all have related to his lack of nous and experience playing as a central defender. That is hardly his fault.
* At one stage in the second half, Van Gaal opted to repeat one of his memorable party tricks. In the 3-0 defeat to Tottenham in April the Dutchman played a centre-back at right-back, a centre-back at left-back, a left-back at centre-back, a right winger at No. 10, a No. 10 at right wing, a centre forward on the left wing and a left winger up front. On Saturday, he played a right winger at right-back (Valencia), a left-back/central midfielder at centre-back (Blind), a right-back at left-back (Darmian), a No. 10 at right wing (Mata), a striker in midfield (Rooney), a striker at left wing (Martial), and a winger as a striker (Young). David de Gea, Smalling and Michael Carrick were the only players in their correct positions, with Marouane Fellaini arguably joining them.
When Smalling was dismissed in extra-time, the United defensive line read, from right to left: Valencia, Darmian, Blind, Young. That the latter of the four was a winger sent on as a substitute striker with two recognised forwards already on the pitch was mind-boggling; that he ended the game at left-back encapsulated Van Gaal’s reign. United were fortunate that they faced a side lacking the necessary confidence and talent to punish them on Saturday as Tottenham did last month.
* Rooney may have been crowned man of the match by many, but United’s actual best player throughout the game was not even on the pitch at the end. Injury curtailed Marcus Rashford’s first appearance in a Wembley final, but this was another occasion during which the teenager flourished instead of floundering.
Chosen to lead the line for United in the FA Cup final, the 18-year-old did so with application and fervour, while providing defensive cover for Valencia on the right, and creating chances at will for his teammates. Rashford made three key passes – no player on the pitch made more – and completed two dribbles, bettered only by Rooney and Zaha. He occupied the Palace defence, capitalising on Juan Mata’s clever movement to create chances from the right wing. Pape Souare stood little chance against the forward.
Rashford’s inclusion in England’s 26-man squad over Jermain Defoe was justified by Saturday’s performance. The Sunderland striker is an out-and-out forward, a proven finisher and a guaranteed goalscorer. Rashford is much, much more. He brings his teammates into the game with excellent hold-up play, he can use his pace and skill to test an opposition defence, and he has a footballing intelligence belying his 18 years. United must be incredibly excited at his unbelievable progression, and rightfully so. ‘He will be a key figure in the FA Youth Cup campaign,’ reads the final line of his player profile on the Manchester United website. It summarises just how far he has come, and yet there is so much room for improvement.
* While United will mercilessly usher Van Gaal out of the back door without a hint of emotion while celebrations are ongoing, another individual looks likely to departure Old Trafford amid a rapturous and thankful reception. After a decade of service, Michael Carrick will leave the club this summer if his contract is not renewed.
One hopes the two part amicably. Carrick should bow out at United having completed his set of medals, with the FA Cup sitting proudly alongside his Premier Leagues, Champions League and collection of other trophies. His final game provides a fitting end, with the midfielder having played a crucial part but going largely unnoticed. He made 96 passes, just four fewer than Rooney, and yet had the highest passing accuracy on the pitch. Carrick, as he has so often, facilitated United’s possession play to perfection, protecting the ball as if it was his offspring. While Rooney opted for the 50-yard ‘Hollywood pass’ on more than one occasion, the 34-year-old kept it simple yet infinitely more effective. Without his experience, the outcome may have swung in Palace’s favour.
What is clear is that United are now entering a new era. It is one Carrick is unlikely to have a role in. The club must move forward, and the England midfielder’s terms should not be extended for another season. The old dog must find a new home, and there will be plenty of suitors.
* Two teams contested the FA Cup final, but a third had more than a vested interest. The Olympic Stadium will host European football in its inaugural season as West Ham’s home.
How fitting that it was United, the side who had ended the Hammers’ own hopes in this competition at the quarter-final stage, who capped a memorable final season at Upton Park with the greatest reward. Some will hardly be enamoured at the July 28 kick-off date for the Europa League third qualifying round first leg, but Slaven Bilic and his players will relish the prospect of facing teams from the continent. The tournament does not enjoy the greatest of reputations, but Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund and three-time holders Sevilla have boosted its status immeasurably with some pulsating performances this season. Treat the ugly brother of European competition with respect, and the rewards are plentiful. Just ask Sevilla, who started the competition on August 1 in the 2013/14 season. They have won each of the three tournaments since.
* Goodbye then, Louis van Gaal. We have laughed at your team selections, cried at your tactics and watched on in amazement as you discussed sex masochism, called someone fat and emerged from a debate with Mike Dean as the most exuberant individual in the vicinity.
Van Gaal has deserved his critics, but he will be sorely missed in the Premier League. He was a manager first and foremost, but an intriguing and often times entertaining character second. His reign at Old Trafford has threatened to descend into farce on more than one occasion, but his expected departure will signal an abrupt end to a fascinating regime. The Dutchman’s glee at securing a trophy in a fourth different country – and his 20th piece of career silverware overall – was evident, and it was impossible not to feel empathetic with him at that point.
He took United from seventh to fourth, then back down to fifth, all with an expenditure of £250million. But he leaves Manchester United in a far better state than that which he found it. In summer 2014, Ed Woodward approached the then-Netherlands manager with the request that he steer a sinking ship to shore. Two years into a three-year deal, he has been unceremoniously thrown overboard by his crew. The FA Cup should soften the blow for a proud man.
And welcome Jose. It has almost felt as though the Portuguese has been acting United manager since December, with the official announcement arriving only now. Some see Mourinho’s arrival at Old Trafford as a guarantee that United will challenge for premier honours again. Much like in the blue half of Manchester, the requisite work should not be underestimated in the red half. Mourinho must solve problems in defence, midfield and attack, all while keeping his new goalkeeper happy, and prioritising youth development. Considering how things deteriorated so rapidly at Stamford Bridge, his appointment is no assurance of success.