As players of Manchester United celebrated with the Europa League trophy, José Mourinho brandished a red flag. He walked in front of his squad and tried to plant it into the pitch. However, the flimsy pole bent. Mourinho propped the flag awkwardly against a hoarding reading “Stockholm Final 2017”.
It was the perfect metaphor for his first season at United. It could not have gone any better: grand gestures thwarted but the job eventually done.
The night was replete with symbolism. Deep into injury-time on Wednesday night, Ajax winger Amin Younes picked up the ball on the left. He glanced up and had just made as though to jink inside when the horizontal form of Wayne Rooney clattered him.
It was an effective if clunking challenge that put the ball out for a throw-in. The thought of it being his last touch in a United shirt made it feel hugely appropriate. Throughout most of his career, he has had a pleasing commitment to the necessary but unglamorous work.
It also said something about Mourinho’s United and how they overwhelmed Ajax in a generally underwhelming final. This is the most expensive football squad ever assembled, and it ended with Marouane Fellaini playing as lone striker.
Whether that matters or not depends on perspective. In the immediate context, it probably does not. Mourinho’s celebrations suggested just how much this meant to him. It showed how essential victory and qualifying for next season’s Champions League is to United’s rebuilding work. Winning was the critical thing, the how can come later.
It is not, though, as simple as that. Mourinho is not a manager who occasionally adopts a policy of pragmatism to achieve a specific goal, before switching to something more expansive. Rather, he revels in discarding aesthetic expectations, in scorning “the poets” whose idealistic abstractions “win every match”.
This season Jose Mourinho attacked the “Einsteins” who were opposing him; railing against the arts and the sciences, he truly is a man under siege. Wednesday’s win, Mourinho said, was “a victory of the pragmatism, a victory of the humble people, a victory of the people who respect the opponents, a victory of the people who try to stop the opponents and exploit their weaknesses”.
In that sense, this was a Mourinho masterclass. Ajax has thrilled this season with their high pressing and the fluency of their play, but United thwarted that. Jose Mourinho has dismissed with some fury, the veracity of certain claims in Diego Torres’s biography of him, but the seven-point plan laid out for winning big games held true here.
United minimized their risk, let Ajax have the ball and seized on their mistakes. Perhaps for neutrals, it was but that will not bother Mourinho. Avoiding risk was one part of the strategy; the other was to cut off the supply to Kasper Dolberg.
The Ajax wingers Younes and Bertrand Traoré had respectively completed the most and the 10th most dribbles in the Europa League this season. They managed seven each on Wednesday, but the end product was a solitary key pass apiece. They got the ball, ran with it, and found themselves out of options. So isolated was Dolberg that the first time he touched the ball was to kick off after Paul Pogba had given United an 18th-minute lead.
The question is whether in the longer term that is enough. The suggestion is that there is something hubristic about this. Impose your style on opponents rather than stopping them from playing was characteristic Jose Mourinho propaganda. He understands that the underdog shtick he employed so successfully at Porto, Chelsea, and Internazionale will not really work at United.
It quickly palled at Real Madrid once they achieved the urgent goal of toppling Pep Guardiola. You cannot be one of the two richest clubs in the world, with a noodle deal in every territory, and pretend your reactive football is a necessary gambit in the face of an overwhelming inferiority of resources.
Similarly, United will accept the “humble” approach for as long as it seems necessary. The four seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement have been turbulent. If this is what it takes to get the club back on track, so be it. But if this is, as seems likely, another summer of significant expenditure, directors and fans will soon start to expect at least a little poetry to enter Mourinho’s soul and United’s play.