Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United: 16 FA Cup final Conclusions

Date published: Saturday 19th May 2018 8:35

1) Jose Mourinho tried to stem the tide even before the water came flooding in. “I’m not going to change my analysis of the season because of one match,” said the Manchester United manager on the eve of the FA Cup final. “You can analyse the way you want to.”

And so we must. Mourinho will attempt to revise the importance of this fixture, but the rest of us must not make the same mistake. This is a manager who has built his entire reputation on silverware, like a deranged magpie with a crippling persecution complex. Thus this defeat cannot be diluted; this failure cannot be forgotten. There is no positive light that can be shone on his first defeat in a final since 2013, and his first ever as a manager in England. If improving a sixth-place finish to come a distant second in the Premier League was two steps forward, winning no trophies after claiming two is two back.

Perhaps Mourinho is right in that “one match” should not define an entire season. But this was simply an extension of everything that had come before, confirmation of just how much work there is to do. United were as poor at Wembley as they have been for much of the season, yet the argument has always been that results take precedence over performance. When such insipid performances are matched with similar results, the questions are inevitable and understandable.

Louis van Gaal was sacked for winning the FA Cup and finishing fifth, outside of the Champions League qualification places on goal difference alone. Since replacing him, Mourinho has found the exact same difficulty in striking a balance between league and cup performance. If improvement is minimal after spending £291m, one would be forgiven for doubting whether the scale of investment really is the problem.

 

2) This was Mourinho’s 15th final as a manager, his third defeat, and his first in 90 minutes. His previous two losses both came in extra-time in the 2004 Taça de Portugal and 2013 Copa del Rey.

Antonio Conte had never before won a knock-out competition as a coach. His three Serie A titles, one Premier League crown and one Serie B success had never been supplemented with domestic or European cup glory. This was a strange mismatch, a manager proven on this stage against a manager whose defeat in last year’s final to an inferior side confirmed his inability to do in a one-off game what he has proven a master of over an entire league campaign. Yet Conte was in control here, and Mourinho had no response.

If Conte is to leave Chelsea this summer, he will do so having won the country’s two biggest competitions in two years. He is only the eighth manager to win both the Premier League and FA Cup. His replacement has an awful lot to live up to.

 

3) To give Marcus Rashford a start in the FA Cup final was hardly befitting of the supposed “disgusting” treatment Mourinho had subjected him to. The subtext was Romelu Lukaku’s inability to prove his fitness beyond a spot on the bench, but this was still a show of trust from manager to player.

It was not reciprocated. Rashford struggled badly as part of a two-pronged attack alongside Alexis Sanchez. The 20-year-old ran the channels diligently but created just one chance and failed to hold the ball up. Chelsea defended well, but were faced with a player completely shot of confidence.

The problem is that Mourinho barely gave the forward time to collect his thoughts between knocking him down and frantically looking for the pieces to try and build him back up. “For many months you are always asking me why this player doesn’t play, why that player doesn’t play, why this player is on the bench, why always Lukaku?” said the manager after giving Rashford and Anthony Martial rare opportunities against Brighton. Fifteen days later, the former started at Wembley in United’s most important match of the season. You could understand if he was a little conflicted.

A lack of chances has not held Rashford back from developing at Old Trafford. That is a fallacy, an incorrect diagnosis of the issue. This was his 105th appearance under Mourinho at United – 14 more than any other player during the Portuguese’s reign. The problem has been more in how Mourinho has handled the player in his inevitable negative moments. Giving a youngster encouragement to run is pointless when you tie their laces together then kick them in the gut as soon as they fall over.

It still feels as though Mourinho is using the 20-year-old as a pointed example that he gives young players a chance. That is half the job of nurturing developing talent.

 

 

4) A nervous start from both sides meant early moments of note were at a premium. The passes were sloppy and sideways, the moves slow and plodding. This was two heavyweights past their prime, refusing to let their guard down for fear of suffering a knock-out blow.

The desperation to gain even the slightest foothold was clear. Tiemoue Bakayoko tumbled over in the penalty area under the monumental force of Nemanja Matic’s fingertips on his back, while Alexis Sanchez collapsed and clutched his ankle after being fairly dispossessed in the penalty area two minutes later. Both were correctly adjudged not to be penalties, yet neither resulted in a booking for simulation. If these weren’t ‘attempts to deceive the referee’, then what exactly were they?

 

5) The first real sign of life for either side came from the most naturally talented player on the pitch. Sorry to Paul Pogba, but this was a spotlight Eden Hazard was demanding almost from the first whistle. The Belgian stuck out like a sore thumb on the Wembley pitch, the only player daring to dribble or make runs that could force an awkward-looking, uncomfortable defence onto the back foot.

It was only natural that United would make mistakes under such pressure, and it was only natural that Phil Jones would be the man to make the majority of them. His misplaced pass gave Hazard licence to attack down the left-hand side and force a clever save from David de Gea, the first of the match.

Chelsea were set up to try and deny United space in midfield; United were set up to try and nullify Chelsea’s attack. With both managers attempting to counter the strengths of the other instead of capitalising on their own, it would take a moment of individual brilliance – a player assuming responsibility to rewrite the script himself – to break the deadlock. Hazard was already busy planning an absorbing plot point while everyone else was scrambling around for a spare pen.

 

6) So it proved little over ten minutes later. A spell of sterile domination in possession for United was pierced with a Gary Cahill header, a Victor Moses surge, a Cesc Fabregas pass and a perfect Hazard touch. In a matter of seconds, Chelsea turned seamlessly from defence to attack in devastating fashion, culminating in Jones fouling Hazard to concede a penalty.

The Belgian dispatched the spot kick to give the Blues a deserved lead, with the BBC commentary team sharing in Conte’s exasperation at how Jones had not been sent off for denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. The change to the triple jeopardy rule meant that Michael Oliver had made the correct decision in the face of intense criticism. He’s making something of a habit of that.

But the sideshow and commotion distracted from the breathtaking ruthlessness that preceded it. This was a reminder that Chelsea, for all of their struggles and their manager’s complaints this season, have the weapons at their disposal to cause maximum damage. They struck first, and they struck hardest.

 

7) As for Jones, this was not his finest half-hour. Gareth Southgate might consider him England’s “best defender”, and Mourinho might believe he has “everything I like in a central defender”, but this was a timely reminder as to his glaring weaknesses. The haphazard passing in the first ten minutes went unpunished, but the slow reactions, lack of pace and poor decision-making was exposed soon after.

There was no explanation offered for the decision to start Jones over Eric Bailly. Mourinho’s excuse for leaving the Ivorian out earlier this month was that he was simply trying to “help” those who “are wishing to make the squad for the World Cup”, but that reasoning is as watertight as a wicker basket. The Portuguese’s task is to win trophies and oversee progress at United. By not starting his best defender in a cup final, he sacrificed the former and put the latter at great risk.

 

8) At the other end of the spectrum is Gary Cahill, who lost his place in Chelsea’s starting line-up around February, but was offered the opportunity to earn it back. He has been excellent since, guiding the club to eight wins in his last ten starts. Having played no part of his only previous winning FA Cup final in 2012, the 32-year-old was eager to make up for lost time.

The captain’s response to setback has been impeccable. There were no toys thrown from prams, no disgruntled leaks to the media, no resentful jibes at the manager. There was simply a period of introspection, an acceptance that his performances had dipped, and a belief that he could regain his form. The fall was pronounced, but the climb back up the summit to lift the FA Cup in the same week as his England World Cup call-up was timed perfectly. Chelsea’s defending was wonderful; Cahill’s leadership was integral.

 

9) Antonio Rudiger deserves great acclaim too. The 25-year-old completed three tackles, made eight clearances and blocked two shots, repelling everything that threatened to disrupt Courtois’s deep sleep. “I want Antonio Rudiger to play like this every game, then I stay,” said Hazard post-match, Chelsea’s king crowning a new prince. There is no greater honour in these parts.

Rudiger has been a fine addition for the Blues, slotting seamlessly into the centre of defence. Only four players have played more minutes for the club this season. Amidst the constant and laborious transfer sniping from Conte this campaign, it is easy to forget that the summer of 2017 was not wasted at Stamford Bridge.

 

 

10) As half-time loomed, United had all the possession but nothing to show for it. Thibaut Courtois was forced into action in the 56th minute, yet the first glimpse of positive attacking intent came on the stroke of half-time. Paul Pogba burst through the midfield, laid the ball off to Sanchez and continued his run into the area to set up Rashford, but the effort was blocked.

The giant had finally awoken from its slumber. In a game begging for someone to step up and take hold, the most expensive player on the pitch was surely the man for the role. He had finally shed the skin of a more disciplined, tactically astute midfielder to become the dominant force his qualities demand.

Not quite. It was the outlier in another uninspiring performance. Pogba was by no means United’s worst player, but he is easily their most frustrating. The tactics, formation and approach undoubtedly limits him, yet that can only excuse so much mediocrity for so long. He is playing in his favoured position, yet garnering unfavourable results.

The missed header when unmarked with ten minutes to go was the defining image of United’s evening. The 25-year-old has supposedly craved freedom all season. Granted what felt like Chelsea’s entire penalty area from Antonio Valencia’s corner, he contrived to waste the opportunity.

 

11) Perhaps Pogba’s deficiencies were simply highlight by the utter brilliance of N’Golo Kante. Both sides featured players towering above 6ft tall, yet the diminutive Frenchman was head and shoulders above the rest. It was a peerless display.

There is little use dedicating many more column inches to his defensive aptitude – he made six tackles, three times the amount United’s midfield made combined – but there is plenty to be said for Kante’s improvement in other areas. His ability on the ball and decision-making is only getting better; this is a midfielder with more dimensions than a GCSE maths exam.

He has been the Premier League’s most consistent player over the past three years, but there is much to be said for the effect Conte’s management has had on him. The 27-year-old was so good he even managed to coax a fine display from Bakayoko.

 

12) By the hour mark, it seemed as though United’s sustained pressure had paid off. Rashford, Pogba and Matic all had efforts early in the second half to signal what felt like another United comeback, and when Sanchez bundled the ball into the net after Courtois saved brilliantly from Jones, it was an inevitable conclusion.

Yet there was no celebration, no wheeling away. Sanchez did not become the first player to score in consecutive FA Cup finals for different teams – against the same side, no less – for the goal was immediately ruled out through offside.

It was a phenomenal decision from the linesman, only confirmed by VAR. It will go unnoticed in most circles, but the system was perfectly implemented on Saturday. Save for the mildly contentious decisions not to book players for diving early in the first half, Oliver and his team were impeccable throughout.

And no, I don’t think the Ashley Young handball was a penalty.

 

13) With 20 minutes remaining, Chelsea had the chance to seal victory. Kante drove through the heart of the United midfield and defence, playing Marcos Alonso through on goal. It was a great save from De Gea, keeping United in the game as ever.

Two minutes later, United had their opportunity. Jesse Lingard produced his only moment of memory with an incisive pass into Rashford down the right, but the striker’s chip was stopped brilliantly by the onrushing Courtois. It would be Rashford’s last touch, with Lukaku replacing him for the final quarter of an hour.

How fitting that in a game pitting the Premier League’s two best goalkeepers against one another, the only goal scored was from the penalty spot. The two sides could have played for another 90 minutes and not found a way past either keeper from open play.

 

 

14) Mourinho had better hope his prediction that Sanchez will improve “next season” comes to pass. As Arsenal fans will attest, the Chilean is a wonderful player at his best, yet he restricts not only himself but the team at his worst. His constant demand for the ball is admirable and ensures he will not be criticised for a lack of effort, yet United were promised so much more. The worry is that this sort of form did not start with his January move; it became a staple of his later months at Arsenal. It is difficult to shake the idea that he is the wrong player at the wrong club under the wrong manager.

 

15) Back in July 2015, Mourinho requested “more protection” from the officials for Hazard. “I won’t name Mr A, Mr B or Mr C, but he had some very nasty tackles last year,” said the Portuguese, concerned for the health of his most prized asset at Chelsea.

Mourinho has since faced Chelsea and Hazard six times as United manager, and on five of those occasions the winger has been the most fouled player in the match. He has been targeted each time either by Herrera or the entire team, and Saturday was no different. Hazard was fouled five times before he was substituted, yet it felt like United could not even get close to him for 90 minutes.

There is still a minority that do not believe Hazard worthy of links with Real Madrid. Yet this is a player always central to the tactics of both Chelsea and their opponents. Mourinho set United up to try and cancel the Belgian out, but each foul simply added fuel to his fire. The best player in the semi-final of the FA Cup was one of the two best players in the final.

 

16) The gall, the audacity of Mourinho to describe Chelsea’s approach as “so predictable” after the game. The nerve to question their “compact low block” and criticise their use of “physicality”. The temerity to describe himself as “a sportsman” after stating that “I don’t think they deserve to win”.

If Chelsea were “so predictable”, why did Mourinho complain after the game that “it was hard for us to play without Lukaku”? Why did he claim that “without Fellaini we don’t have a presence”? Has he really spent almost £300m in two years to rely on just two players, one of whom he inherited upon his arrival, in a game of such consequence? Is it really so simple to completely remove the sting from United’s tail?

If Chelsea’s “physicality” was a point of contention, how did United commit 13 fouls to their 11? Are players boasting the natural talent of Sanchez, Martial, Rashford, Lingard and Pogba really so incapable of countering a “compact low block”? Is this manager really so powerless as to construct a game plan based only on nullifying the opposition’s main threat, then complaining when they do the same to greater effect?

It is damning that, without Lukaku, United have no discernible alternative. They have scored 11 goals in the eight Premier League and FA Cup matches Lukaku has not started this season, yet Lukaku has scored or assisted four of those as a substitute. There is no-one willing to carry the burden in his stead – and that includes the manager.

Matt Stead

 


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