It’s the Blues for Jose: A Review of the FA Cup Final
May 23, 2018
As the dust settled on the 137th FA Cup final, there was a strange sense of anti-climax at both ends of Wembley Stadium.
While Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United found themselves staring down the barrel of a trophyless season after a frustrating 1-0 defeat, Chelsea boss Antonio Conte cut a reflective figure as his future at the club hung precariously in the balance.
Even match-winner Eden Hazard, who was the best player on the pitch by some distance, spoke candidly and disparagingly about the Blues’ performance in his post-match interview, with the Belgian appearing slightly detached from his more celebratory teammates.
Below, we’ll look back at the Wembley showpiece, while asking what’s next for both clubs.
A Chess-like Final – Chelsea beat Mourinho at his Own Game
In truth, the final lived up to most fans’ expectations, as two innately cautious teams engaged in an occasionally tedious game of cat-and-mouse. Both Mourinho and Conte prefer to set up defensive sides that play on the counter-attack, of course, and neither was willing to really seize the initiative in the early stages.
With this in mind, the first goal was always likely to be crucial, and this came in the 21st minute following an exceptionally poor piece of defending from Phil Jones. The brilliant Hazard cushioned a ball from Cesc Fàbregas on the half-volley before surging inside an out-of-position Jones, slaloming into the penalty error before being felled by the centre-half.
Only Jones’ genuine (if somewhat desperate) attempt to win the ball enabled him to stay on the pitch as the last man, while Hazard kept his cool to send David de Gea the wrong way and score from the spot.
The Blues were then able to drop even deeper into their own half, adopting a de facto back five and crowding the central midfield area. This enabled them to capitalise on the enforced absence of Romelu Lukaku (who was only fit enough to start from the bench), as United’s lack of tempo and a forward focal point meant that they created very little in the first-half.
This pattern of play continued after the break, although United improved their tempo and level and intensity and managed to pin Chelsea back for the vast majority of the second-half. They also managed to test Thibaut Courtois on several occasions during the second 45 minutes, with Marcus Rashford drawing two excellent saves, Alexis Sanchez having a goal ruled out by VAR and Paul Pogba placing a free header wide from just eight yards.
Marcos Alonso Mendoza also had an exceptional chance to steal a second goal on the break as United committed more men forward in the final 20 minutes, only to be denied by De Gea. As the match entered its dying embers, however, the Blues leveraged all their experience and know-how to manage the game and earn their 8th FA Cup win (and 5th in the last 12 years).
A Hollow Victory? What’s Next for Both Sides?
While Mourinho congratulated Conte’s Chelsea, the Portuguese was adamant that the best side had not emerged victorious at Wembley. Although the statistics seemed to support this assertion (United had 66% of the ball and 18 attempts on goal to Chelsea’s six), it’s hard to argue with the ruthless way the Blues executed their game plan or the fact that the Reds were far too timid in possession during the first-half.
Mourinho’s critics were also quick to point out that the strategy deployed by Chelsea was one that the Portuguese often adopted in big games, and in this respect, he was simply bested by his own game.
Still, United did more than enough to force extra-time, with their poor finishing and a questionable final ball proving crucial during the 90 minutes. This created a genuine sense of frustration among fans, many of whom will see the season as a failure having failed to lift any silverware while also finishing a gargantuan 19 points behind Manchester City (despite some significant spending since Mourinho took charge in the summer of 2016).
Given this, Mourinho’s innate caution and the fractious nature of his relationship with some players, this summer will prove crucial if United at to challenge for the Premier League next season. While nobody is suggesting that the Portuguese’ job is under any threat, he must recruit well during the transfer window while striving to retain the service of young starlets such as Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford.
As for Conte and Chelsea, their future is even more uncertain despite lifting the coveted FA Cup. The Italian manager spoke passionately after the game about his desire to remain at the club, of course, but remained adamant that he would not change or compromise his standards in terms of his playing squad and the level of autonomy that he’s allowed.
The stage therefore appears have been set for him to depart Stamford Bridge this summer, as the club looks to appoint a 12th manager in just 10 years.
This leaves Chelsea at a familiar impasse, but one that has not prevented them from challenging for major domestic and European honours during the last decade. Perhaps of bigger concern were the post-match comments from Eden Hazard, who spoke openly about Chelsea’s defensive style of play and the need for significant improvement going forward.
The fact that the Belgian adopted such a tone in the immediate aftermath of a cup win spoke volumes, with Hazard arguably clearing the way for a big summer move. Now 27 and without Champions League football next season, it seems increasingly likely that the forward will leave in the next few months, with Real Madrid known to be long-term suitors.
It’s important to note that a long-term deal has remained unsigned for a while now, and with Hazard clearly weighing up his options the club have done little convince him to extend his career at Stamford Bridge.
This would be a considerable loss, and one that could well trigger an exodus of players including Alvaro Morata, Fabregas and Willian.
Given this, it’s little wonder that Chelsea’s cup final celebrations were somewhat muted, as they prepare for another period of transition and one that could make it hard for them to return to the Champions League next season.