Appearances can be deceptive. On the face of things, Manchester United have enjoyed great improvement this season. Sunday’s win over Watford put the finishing touches on a Premier League campaign which has seen the Old Trafford side jump from sixth to second place in the space of a year.
On top of that, United made the last 16 of the Champions League and have the final of the FA Cup to look forward to this weekend. If they beat Chelsea at Wembley on Saturday, Jose Mourinho will be able to reflect on winning three major trophies in two years, re-establishing Man Utd as a force, the second best team in the country.
And yet all this would be window dressing on a project that has lost its momentum under Mourinho. Man Utd aren’t nearly as bad as many like to make out. It’s true that they can be tough to watch at times, particularly in the big games, but more often than not, Mourinho still gets results. But a sense of malaise has set in at Old Trafford over the past year and that has started to manifest itself in the performance of many players at the club.
For United to return to the very top of the English game, this malaise must be shifted. It could be argued that winning trophies, like the FA Cup this weekend, will help in doing this, but more fundamental change is needed at Old Trafford if their full potential is to be realised. At present, it feels like a number of players are being held back. Take Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez, for example.
The FA Cup used to struggle for relevance, but it has found some in being a way for teams to salvage their season. Look at how Arsenal celebrated their triumph over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City at the national stadium last season having finished in fifth place in the Premier League. Before that, Louis Van Gaal went out with in a blaze of FA Cup glory after missing out on the top four, resulting in the Dutchman’s dismissal.
Both Chelsea and Man Utd are looking for some sort of salvation for a disappointing season this weekend, with the former arguably most in need of a trophy to lift after a campaign which has seen them go from champions to top four outcasts. Whatever happens, Antonio Conte is unlikely to still be at Stamford Bridge for the start of next season.
Mourinho will remain at Man Utd past the summer, but in his third year at the club much greater progress must be achieved. The Portuguese coach’s reputation is on the line. At every club he has been at all the way back to Porto, Mourinho has succeeded, winning league titles at Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid.
United would be the odd one out if he fails to finish atop the pile in at least one of his seasons at the club. At present, there’s little to suggest that Mourinho is on course to take Man Utd back to the top. This season, not matter what happens on Saturday, just adds to the evidence of his decline.
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