On a sweaty, heavy, oddly gruelling Wembley day Manchester United’s sweaty, heavy, oddly gruelling season was finally euthanised to a close.
It has been a good season in some ways, with obvious progress made in the Premier League. But it passed here without the garnish of a trophy as Eden Hazard’s first-half penalty settled a largely forgettable FA Cup final in Chelsea’s favour.
Chelsea have had a mixed season, too. Victory at Wembley was a reflection not of a team finding its gears, but of the fact in Hazard they had the best player on the pitch, enough to make a difference even in just the briefest glimpse.
For United this felt like something else, a dose of necessary medicine where the gleam of another trophy might have concealed the symptoms, hid the deeper snags and knots. Either way it seemed a fitting reflection of United’s status right now to end the season watching this sluggish red‑shirted machine spend 90 minutes trying and failing to score a goal.
This remains the single most interesting thing about this powerful, strangely burdened team. From Anfield to St James’ Park, from Andalucía to Ashton Gate, United’s season has been a heavy kind of thing, with a sense throughout of trapped energy, of cogs that refuse to click, of results wrung out of bloody‑minded will.
Look back and this has been the one constant of the post‑Ferguson era. Through five years and three managers successive teams have shared this clogged aspect, lacking in the vital notes of grace and fluency. Against all expectations Manchester United have somehow become the Daleks.
Mourinho’s team has now ended the season with seven goals in their last eight games, with fewer away goals than Leicester in the league, with a single goal over 180 minutes against Sevilla, with four goals in a game just once since a fine scoring run in the autumn. Albeit, even in those most liberated moments there has been a clanking quality, like an android replicant making brief, sullen attempts to dance the Charleston.
If any player embodied this struggle at Wembley it was probably the frantic figure of Marcus Rashford, who was never on his heels, who ran constantly, passed accurately; but who seemed throughout to be playing through a kind of fog, blunt when he needed to be sharp, a player making all the right runs, just not necessarily in the right order.
With Romelu Lukaku unfit for anything more than the bench this was a wonderful opportunity for Rashford to play as a starting centre-forward in a season-defining game. Not that his year to date had provided much significant preparation.
Rashford did get a start as a centre-forward against Brighton just a couple of weeks ago, a game that inspired a pretty wretched piece of public politicking from Mourinho afterwards. “Why always Lukaku? Now you see why,” was the verdict of a man charged with building the confidence, self-esteem and general pastoral wellbeing of one of the brightest young attacking talents in England. Or not, as the case may be.
Here Rashford lined up just ahead of Alexis Sánchez here in a vague, ungrooved, energetically incoherent impersonation of a two-man attack. After five minutes and 30 seconds someone in a red shirt finally passed to him. For a while he made runs: curving runs, runs across the back three, runs behind the full-backs. After all it’s good to keep yourself busy. Meanwhile a football match happened 30 yards away.
Rashford is still only 20 and in the middle of one of those difficult seasons young players are allowed to have. The wider issue is the sense of a player drifting into a kind of dead zone where he seems unsure not just of his role but of his own basic skills.
Mourinho’s keenest fans will be eager to excuse him from any part in this. But something is missing here. Rashford has talent and willing. There has simply been no development, just a sense of irritation that this young player is not a ready-made elite No 9.
Either way Rashford looks more like an over-promoted youth-team player now than when he actually was one. Certainly it is clearer than ever how important Lukaku is to José’s United. Second balls, bouncing off defenders, fighting for scrappy possession: this is the job now.
United did surge after half-time, making concerted attempts to force the ball through Chelsea’s lines in a red-shirted bludgeon. With no obvious attacking plan, United went into blitz mode, midfield storming forward, the full‑backs battering in crosses. But they never really threatened to find the right forward gear.
There is nothing wrong with defensive football, which has its own kind of beauty. Mourinho has been the master of victory through constriction, and in the process has provided some of the most memorable and overachieving European teams of the last couple of decades.
But the past tense is significant here. Reactive, strangulating football remains his base note, but it is hardly reflected in the wider world where the most successful teams tend to pour their energies and planning into moving forward, concentrating on the weaknesses not the strengths of an opponent.
No goals: no trophy. The extent to which Mourinho is willing, never mind able, to regear this United team over the summer will surely be key to the immediate future of both.