Manchester United won the Europa League on Wednesday night after a comfortable 2-0 victory over a young and exciting Ajax team.
Jose Mourinho has an excellent record in finals and his experience came to the fore in Stockholm, as his side managed the game superbly and never looked like losing the game.
This win has earned them qualification for next season’s Champions League, which means that England could have five teams in the group stages.
If United had lost against the Eredivisie side, their season may have been considered a failure, but that won’t be the case now.
Here are three things that we learned in Stockholm…
1) Jose Mourinho has had a successful first season in charge of Manchester United
It has been far from perfect, but the win in the Europa League final means that Manchester United have had a successful season. Only Chelsea can claim to have had a better season in terms of achievements and Jose Mourinho deserves credit for that.
Although it has been difficult at Old Trafford since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, they are now emerging as a powerful club again and the rest of Europe will have stood up to take notice. It was always going to be a rebuilding job for Mourinho, but they have taken a huge step forwards over the last nine months.
There will be criticism directed at him over the manner of their victory in Stockholm, as they had only 31% possession during the match, but he deployed the game-plan that he knew would get the job done. Ajax didn’t create one clear-cut chance and they were never in the game after the second goal.
Throughout the competition, United haven’t been convincing and they have rarely played good football. Mourinho won’t care about that. This is a results business and he has delivered the results required to move United forward. The style can be addressed over the summer. Tonight it was imperative that they won and they did.
2) Youth was no match for experience
There has been a lot of excitement regarding this Ajax team in recent months and rightly so, they have produced some of the best performances in this competition. Peter Bosz is a disciple of Johan Cruyff and he is re-establishing their famous identity. They are once again playing ‘total football’ and promoting young players into the first team.
On Wednesday, they had the youngest starting eleven ever in a major European final at the age of 22 years and 282 days. It is great to see one of Europe’s legendary clubs achieve success again, especially with the philosophy that led to many falling in love with the club during the late 20th century.
However, they didn’t pose a real threat to Manchester United in Stockholm and didn’t have a response to the Mourinho game-plan. There were flashes of their ability, with Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech delivering impressive performances, but they didn’t show enough urgency in the second half.
Their inexperience was there for all to see on Wednesday and they didn’t have the game-management ability to compete with United, especially after they conceded an early goal. These young players all have big futures ahead of them and it is important that they learn from this experience.
3) Marouane Fellaini was the key to winning this match
The Belgian midfielder is a much-maligned figure in the Manchester United squad. Supporters often complain when his name is on the team-sheer and that was probably the case on Wednesday evening. However, he was the key to winning this match and Mourinho deployed him in the perfect role.
Ajax have an attack that aggressively press in the opposition half, but United played over that with long balls to Fellaini to quickly counter-attack and it caused a lot of problems for the opposition. The young defenders that started for the Eredivisie side couldn’t deal with the Belgian’s physicality, as shown by his 15 successful aerial duels.
In addition to his aerial presence, Fellaini contributed the assist for Paul Pogba’s opening goal and completed six ball recoveries in the centre of the park. He came close to wrapping up the victory, but his header was saved by Andre Onana.
Although the Belgian will be disappointed not to have found the back of the net, he was one of the best players on the pitch in Stockholm and proved his worth to Manchested United. He suits the style of play that Mourinho wants to play and it would be a surprise if he isn’t at the club next season.