The media was waiting again for Jose Mourinho. On Sunday he arrived early and on Wednesday night he was so late the sun might have begun to rise in Stockholm. Everyone was reassured he was still on the premises by the rumblings below which caused the press room to shudder.
Manchester United players were going through their repertoire of chants in the victors’ dressing room at ground level. The Europa League was ‘the final piece of the jigsaw’ – as Mourinho put it – remembering that stylish programme cover for Celta Vigo’s visit a fortnight ago and the unison was tight.
Some things in Sweden told you United were into something good. Mourinho has deprogrammed a dressing room which was on the brink of mutiny under Louis van Gaal last season and the unity is so intense at United David de Gea, who has potentially played his last game for the club, was the first to leap off the bench following Paul Pogba’s goal.
There were moments in Stockholm United players morphed into Mourinho players. Daley Blind, affronted by Paul Pogba rounding on Chris Smalling, bickered with the French midfielder and Matteo Darmian, rebuked by Mourinho early on for straying too far forward, produced a hard-nosed performance the most devout catenaccio disciples would have bowed before. Ander Herrera buzzed around like a bee Ajax just could not swat.
“This is a victory for pragmatism,” Mourinho stressed unashamedly. The Ajax coach Peter Bosz had bemoaned a ‘boring game’ and opined United ‘only played long balls’ in a critique reminiscent of Jurgen Klopp’s in January. Klopp lost a Europa League final last year, too.
Even with Juan Mata selected over the more disciplined Jesse Lingard United were not about to revert to an expansive approach for their most significant fixture in five years. United’s performance was a retort to the ‘poets’ Mourinho spoke about during an otherwise dignified press conference. The celebrated trio of Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino ended the season trophyless. United have won more trophies in a year than Spurs have managed in the last 25. Liverpool only have the League Cup to display in Anfield from the last decade.
United opted for grit over guile and Mourinho was at his most animated when positioning his players during Ajax’s spells of sterile possession, bringing Marcus Rashford nearer to the touchline and fretting over Marouane Fellaini’s forays.
It said much about how Mourinho has mellowed he did not berate Henrikh Mkhitaryan for his anxious first-half performance when he was within earshot. Whatever he said at the pause had the appropriate galvanising effect when the Armenian innovatively flicked in the clincher.
After the substitute Lingard was upended one-on-one Mourinho screamed at him for remaining prostrate instead of tracking back. The melee Mata sparked and was then stoked by Herrera stirred the fitness coach Carlos Lalin, yet Mourinho beckoned him and the rest of United’s staff back to the bench.
Behind the bench, United had more ‘players’. The broadcasters should have fixed a camera on Eric Bailly and Marcos Rojo, a bad-cop-badder-cop double act who embody Mourinho on the pitch and in the stands. The crutches did not stop Rojo from regularly rising to his feet and he regularly screamed at teammates to push up while Bailly celebrated clearances.
As the game entered added time Mourinho turned to supporters and clenched his fists. The party had started and Rojo was affronted by how clammed up United’s substitutes were. He yelled at De Gea to stand and prepare in the technical area but the message was insufficient, so Bailly lobbed a hefty water bottle which thudded against the bench perspex. De Gea responded with an expletive.
“They were playing behind the bench, shouting, they were doing everything,” Mourinho said of United’s unavailable players. Zlatan Ibrahimovic used his lingo to tell the Swedish ball boys ‘to go easy’ in the second-half.
Rojo raised his crutches triumphantly at the final whistle while Bailly grabbed one of Ibrahimovic’s and ecstatically lobbed it. The Swede told United’s press officer to fetch it but soon discarded the walking aids. Herrera, the de facto captain, raced towards the supporters.
This was a team which played and celebrated in its manager’s image. The Madrid media will not have been amused at De Gea’s gleefulness while Michael Carrick punched the air and looked to the top tier for his family as he homed in on the complete set. The usually placid player later berated the linesman for failing to reward Rashford free-kicks as he warmed up. Wayne Rooney then gave him an earful.
‘Humble’ was the incongruous buzzword during Mourinho’s post-match sit down yet Herrera symbolised that with an emotional and measured reaction in the wake of Monday night’s atrocity. Whether it was during or after the game, Mourinho and his players mixed it up.
Before he distanced himself from United’s ceremonial celebrations Mourinho grabbed a red flag and planted it firmly into the ground.