Manchester United last won a trophy under Jose Mourinho in 2017. While those League Cup and Europa League wins felt like that team’s limit, glory at Wembley for Erik ten Hag at the end of February feels as though it will be the precursor to much more.
“I’ve said it before that it is too long that this club didn’t win a trophy and it belongs to this club to win trophies so we have to get back on track,” Ten Hag said ahead of the game, reflecting on a Manchester United trophy drought which stretches back to the summer of 2017, when they won the Europa League. It’s 2,072 days since United last tasted silverware. It really is about time.
Jose Mourinho had led United to League Cup glory earlier in the 2016/17 season, and also classed the Charity Shield as a further gong in what may be the worst possible treble.
“In a bad season, in a season where sometimes I felt my team was the worst team in the world, where I felt I was the worst manager in the world, we managed to win three trophies,” Mourinho said after the 2-0 win over Ajax in the Europa League final.
While Mourinho said he hoped the result would make “the city of Manchester a little bit happier” after the occasion was completely overshadowed by the Manchester Arena bombing two days before, even those who managed to switch off from the horrors of home for 90 minutes will have felt little in the way of hope for their football club.
It was a game which saw Ajax have 17 shots to United’s six and 67% possession. Mourinho claimed it was “a win for pragmatism” and described his players as “not poets, just humble people”.
One notable “humble” medal winner was Marcus Rashford – the only surviving United player from that final – who’s now playing as if poetry was motion, and is one of the greatest purveyors of the optimism which was so lacking six years ago.
His goal in the sixth minute at the City Ground was his 18th of the season, and his tenth in his last ten games. Luck and skill combined for Rashford – as it so often does for those in rich veins of form – with Joe Worrall getting in quite the tangle as the England international dribbled through him before finishing at the near post.
Wout Weghorst scored his first for United as he responded quickest to Antony’s rebounded shot, and led the line brilliantly, before Bruno Fernandes put the game, and almost certainly the tie, to bed in the latter stages.
Ten Hag’s Manchester United aren’t pragmatic to a fault as they were under Mourinho in 2017, but there’s usually an efficiency to their football, in which they attack with defence in mind. But things were rather more chaotic against Forest.
They were caught in transition on more than one occasion in the first half, with Sam Surridge’s goal ruled out by VAR for offside after some fine work from Morgan Gibbs-White and Danilo, who looks set to make quite the impression in English football.
Victor Lindelof struggled to shackle Brennan Johnson, who was lacking the finishing touch, while Casemiro hasn’t been given as torrid a time in English football as he was by Gibbs-White.
That said, United were worthy winners and will be favourites ahead of Newcastle or Southampton in a final they will reach barring the shock of the season in the second leg.
The so-deemed lesser trophies won by Mourinho in 2017 didn’t turn out to be precursors to the bigger prizes – as was the case for him at Chelsea in 2005 and Pep Guardiola in 2018 in their first seasons in English football – but it never felt as though that would be the case. The League Cup and Europa League was that United’s limit.
The fans will have to wait a little longer for the Premier League should they win their first trophy under Ten Hag in just under a month’s time. It looks to be beyond them this season. But unlike the last time they won anything, that bigger win feels as though it’s coming.
Perhaps next season, which would see Ten Hag mimic the legacy-maker who won the League Cup the year before his first of 13 Premier League titles. You can dream.