What Jose Mourinho must improve about Man United to overcome next challenge Manchester United know how to play the game and not the occasion, but can Jose Mourinho get his squad to show consistency over 38 games?
“In a final, it’s not important how you play but only that you take the trophy home.”
Samuel Eto’o knows a thing or two about winning European finals after lifting the Champions League trophy with Barcelona and Inter Milan during his career.
The Cameroon international was integral to Inter’s treble success under Jose Mourinho in 2010 as the Italian side battled past Chelsea, Barcelona and Bayern Munich to win their third trophy of the season in the Champions League final.
Lifting the lid on Mourinho’s approach to the European showpiece in 2010, Eto’o said in an interview in April 2017: “In a final, normally, it’s not the team that plays the occasion that wins, but the team which plays the match.”
Eto’o’s words feel particularly apt after Mourinho won his first European trophy since 2010 thanks to Manchester United’s 2-0 win against Ajax on Wednesday night.
Much was made of Ajax’s total football ahead of the Europa League final, which served to further emphasise Manchester United’s struggles in front of goal under Mourinho.
The stage looked set for Ajax to condemn a tired Manchester United side to a disappointing season after they could only muster a sixth-placed finish in the Premier League.
But the Manchester United manager tapped into his squad’s experience to suffocate Ajax’s bright attacking talents and take control of the final. It was another Mourinho masterclass.
Manchester United played the match and not the occasion – just as Mourinho’s Inter Milan side had done so successfully in a 2-0 win against Bayern Munich seven years ago.
Ajax’s prolific striker Kasper Dolberg didn’t touch the ball before Paul Pogba’s deflected strike handed Manchester United a 1-0 lead.
Mourinho and his players were never going to loosen their grip on a first Europa League trophy following Pogba’s 18th-minute opener.
Manchester United’s second goal came at an inopportune time for Ajax, just three minutes into the second half.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s strike compounded a naive performance from the Eredivisie side in a largely uninspiring final – in a footballing sense at least.
But Mourinho won’t care. His first season will be remembered as a success in spite of a sixth-place finish in the Premier League.
The Portuguese coach was charged with securing Manchester United’s place in the Champions League – and he delivered.
Not only did Manchester United book their spot in the group-stage draw and avoid the the hassle of a qualifying round, but the Red Devils will be second seeds thanks to their inflated Uefa coefficient.
Manchester United have winning the Europa League to thank for that coefficient boost.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Wembley heroics secured their first major trophy under Mourinho back in February when Manchester United were 3-2 winners against Southampton in the EFL Cup final.
The 54-year-old is also counting the Community Shield as silverware, holding three fingers aloft to signify the Mourinho treble was complete at the Friends Arena.
Manchester United’s Champions League qualification and silverware haul is enough to paint over the cracks of an underwhelming first Premier League campaign.
As Rio Ferdinand pointed out after the Europa League final, Manchester United still lack ruthless characters in their squad.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Juan Mata are perhaps the only two Manchester United players with a proven ruthless streak in front of goal. This is something Manchester United will have to address this summer.
Mourinho’s greatest feat at Old Trafford so far has been restoring a winning mentality to the Manchester United team.
The trait seeped out of the squad under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal with proven winners being phased out.
Winning the Europa League and the EFL Cup, as well as battling to results against their closest Premier League rivals, indicates that Mourinho is fostering a new mentality at Old Trafford.
It hasn’t been pretty – a dour stalemate at Anfield in October sticks out in the mind as an exaggerated example of Mourinho’s negative philosophy.
The champagne football of the Sir Alex Ferguson era remains a fond memory.
But if Mourinho can instil a ruthless streak thanks to two or three shrewd signings, Manchester United could be destined for short-term success.
There is no doubt that Mourinho knows how to prepare a team to play the game and not the final, but his biggest challenge next season will be building a consistent Manchester United side over 38 games.