The lasting image of Manchester United’s Europa League Final win over Ajax won’t be from any silky move or thunderous goal scored during the 90 minute match. What will be remembered is manager Jose Mourinho holding up three fingers and urging his players to do likewise.
The three finger salute was in reference to the Red Devils’ trophy treble in 2016-17 – FA Community Shield, English League Cup and Europa League. The win in Stockholm over Ajax not only changed opinion on the season Manchester United had, but it reminded everyone of the quality of manager the Old Trafford side possess.
Manchester United was far from an exciting team throughout the 2016-17 Premier League season. Of the teams to finish in the top seven, Manchester United scored the fewest goals (54); yet they allowed the second fewest behind Tottenham (29). The team still finished sixth, missing out on automatic qualification to the Champions League, and its Europa League win was the team’s saving grace for next season.
Manchester United’s win did more for the team than just hand them a trophy. It put the Red Devils back at the forefront of English and European soccer. It also reminded the top players around Europe that Old Trafford is one of the premier venues to ply their trade. Before kickoff of the Europe League Final, numerous top players would have been on the fence about playing for Manchester United next term. With the win and qualification to the Champions League secured, it has now made the decisions of Antoine Griezmann and others easy. In fact, just hours after the win, Griezmann’s transfer to Manchester United became more likely.
Mourinho’s tactics to win the Europa League weren’t spectacular. The team had eight men behind the ball at nearly all times, and each time the Red Devils won it, the ball was booted up field for Marcus Rashford to run on to. It worked, but it wasn’t pretty to watch. Manchester United conceded 69% of the possession to Ajax, allowing the Dutch team to have its way with the ball. Unfortunately for Ajax, the team could do nothing in front of goal as only three shots came from within the 18-yard box.
Manchester United’s win wasn’t exceptional, and some on social media pointed out that Mourinho “parked the bus” against an under-23 side. That claim isn’t very far off, and despite him getting his tactics right, it once again showed he isn’t able to get the best out of creative attackers. If Griezmann does join the Old Trafford outfit this summer, would he suffer under Mourinho, like Eden Hazard did during the 2015-16 season under the Portuguese boss?
Manchester United need plenty of reinforcements for next season. While the team has shown it can play well defensively, the attack needs help. Zlatan Ibrahimovic led the squad in scoring with 17 goals, and without him down the stretch Manchester United struggled mightily. Juan Mata was the team’s next best scorer, tallying just six goals.
Manchester United is back on the rise, and Mourinho has shown he can get the best out of his team, defensively. But can he build on the team’s treble and improve on Manchester United’s anaemic attack? That is his next task.
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