Manchester United and football need a break from each other
LONDON -- As he stood on the Wembley touchline, waiting to replace Eden Hazard in the 91st minute of the FA Cup final, Chelsea forward Willian felt a friendly pat from a manager he likes and trusts.
But it wasn't his own, Antonio Conte. Amid the disappointment of watching Manchester United drifting towards defeat, Jose Mourinho's hand had still found the Brazilian's shoulder. Conte stood a few yards away, oblivious and uncaring, his attention fully trained on the pitch.
It was a surreal moment that perfectly crystallised Willian's contrasting relationships with his former and current managers, and underlined why talk of a reunion with Mourinho at United has bubbled away for more than a year.
For the avoidance of any doubt, Willian made his disdain for Conte perfectly clear the following day, obscuring the Italian with trophy emojis in a team celebration photo published on his official Instagram account that was widely viewed and shared on social media before being taken down.
His feelings are justifiable, even if his actions were not. Conte has rarely considered Willian a key member of Chelsea's starting XI over the last two seasons, often benched him after good performances and ostracised two of his best friends at the club, Diego Costa and David Luiz.
Mourinho, on the other hand, has remained in regular contact since leaving Stamford Bridge and always has a smile and a hug for him when Chelsea face United. An informal attempt was made to bring Willian to Old Trafford last summer, only for the Blues to shut it down.
"There were a few conversations with my agent," he later explained to Goal. "I worked with Mourinho and I became his friend as well. He likes me a lot and I like him a lot as a coach and as a person. He has put his trust in me and in my work, and I was very grateful to him."
Willian's social media misdemeanour does not make his exit this summer inevitable. His big problem at Chelsea is with Conte, and the Italian is not likely to be a problem for much longer. Yet the strength of Mourinho's admiration presents an interesting quandary, as well as an intriguing potential opportunity.
Anthony Martial got slightly more time than Willian on the Wembley pitch on Saturday, replacing Jesse Lingard in the 73rd minute with United desperately seeking an equaliser, but the Frenchman's promising Old Trafford career has ground to a halt under Mourinho in a manner that Chelsea will recognise all too well.
Martial has started just six times in all competitions since the January signing of Alexis Sanchez, while having his attitude and application publicly questioned by Mourinho. Such criticisms may be valid, but the memory of Kevin De Bruyne is too fresh at Stamford Bridge for Chelsea to rely on their former manager's assessment.
The potential swap deal that has been floated has its merits. Mourinho is under huge pressure to challenge Manchester City next season and it is arguable that his only unqualified successes in the transfer market at United to date have been Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic -- two players he knew well at Chelsea. Willian represents a similarly known quantity, is ready to win now and would fill one of United's biggest positional needs on the right flank.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are looking for regeneration. Their ageing squad has now missed out on Champions League football twice in the last three seasons and key players Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois are watching closely for signs of ambition in the club's transfer targets before they commit to new contracts.
Unable to shop at the very top end of a hyper-inflated market, Chelsea's priority has to be acquiring elite young talent undervalued elsewhere. Martial, the world's most expensive teenager when United signed him for £36m in September 2015 and scorer of 11 Premier League goals in his debut season in England under Louis van Gaal, is a thrillingly tantalising reclamation project.
Simply taking United's cash for Willian and condemning themselves to the same level of backlash that greeted Matic's defection to Old Trafford last summer is not a desirable option for the Chelsea hierarchy. The days when it was in their interests to solve Mourinho's problems are long gone.
Acquiring a prospect with Martial's potential in exchange would enable Marina Granovskaia to soften the blow of Willian's departure with fresh talent, just as Arsenal did in getting Henrikh Mkhitaryan for Sanchez in January. And while there is a risk that Eden Hazard's preference for playing from the left might complicate the new arrival's integration, Martial could just as easily prove a ready-made replacement for the Belgian if Real Madrid consummate their long-standing interest this summer.
Mourinho would be at best reckless and at worst foolish to sanction sending Martial to Stamford Bridge for Willian, but then he has prioritised current ability over future potential throughout his managerial career.
Chelsea's hope -- and United's fear -- should be that they can be the beneficiaries of the same impatience that once led them to discard De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah. If a deal for Martial is possible, reuniting Willian with his favourite manager would be a bitter pill well worth swallowing.
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.
Before Saturday's FA Cup final against Chelsea, the Manchester United world was briefly at peace in northwest London as fans packed pubs in the sun and sang songs about going to Wembley.
Ahead of Monday's 10th anniversary, they talked of the 2008 European Cup win in Moscow, of epic journeys to Russia undertaken with the optimism of youth and despite chaotic airports, of whether a single current United player would have got into that 2008 side, of John Terry's slip and a third European Cup.
Liverpool fans will be making similar plans to get to Kiev this week, not that United fans want to dwell on that or Manchester City being champions of England. Reaching the FA Cup final isn't the same as a European Cup decider, but it was a consolation, a day for the 40,000-strong Red Army to enjoy. It felt good and there was widespread optimism, which was justifiable considering Jose Mourinho had won 12 of his previous 14 cup finals as a manager.
But with Romelu Lukaku only on the bench, United's start to the game was far from positive. There was nothing new there; too many times, Mourinho's men only start playing when they go behind. They have the talent to come from 2-0 down to win at Man City, yet lose to lesser teams when they never seem to fire. United were better after half-time, but a goal would not come and the team simply must be more consistent to avoid another trophyless season.
Summer signings? That get out of jail card has been played too often in recent years. Even when the new arrivals do come, fans should not get overwhelmed and distracted by the pomp surrounding their unveilings. Given how much has been spent, United's record in the transfer market over the past five years is poor; too many players decline rather than improve when they arrive at Old Trafford.
Among Mourinho's signings, centre-halves Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof did not start on Saturday, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan has already been sold. Alexis Sanchez has yet to fully impress, but deserves more time. Elsewhere, Lukaku and Nemanja Matic have been successful, as was Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Negotiations for Paul Pogba were advanced when Mourinho took the helm in 2016, but the midfielder's relationship with his manager is far from smooth. He's not the only one in that situation, but it doesn't serve players to go public with their frustrations, any more than it does for you or I to stand outside work or school with a banner that criticises the boss.
United are keen to avoid a repeat of the player turnover during Louis van Gaal's time in charge, and selling those who have failed looks like a failure, more so if they then thrive elsewhere. But the club have identified their first-, second- and third- choice targets for left- and right-back, as well as central defender and midfielder.
Other movement will depend on players forcing their way out. The disadvantage of that is they're unlikely to earn the same as they do at United but, if they feel so strongly about a lack of minutes, the style of football or Mourinho's man-management, they know where the door is. It is a message the manager has made explicitly clear to both players and his staff.
He has also said that his professional duty is to do the best for the club, that he has no interest in being friends. In fairness, Sir Alex Ferguson's management style was hardly timid, and Mourinho is prepared to deliver bad news to try to keep egos in check, unlike the majority of people around the players. Yet Ferguson has been effusive in private about how, across Manchester, Pep Guardiola has got his players working hard and buying into what he does.
Mourinho enjoys a tight relationship with executive vice chairman Ed Woodward and the relative success of 81 points and a second-place finish will be accentuated. As well as Man City, United beat Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs and a Chelsea side who may have won the FA Cup, but whose fans were taunted by chants of playing in the Europa League next season as they left Wembley.
Some of United's wins were thrilling, and the football played is better than under Louis Van Gaal, but nobody will remember the trophyless 2017-18 as a vintage season. Players will get their people to push positives about improving and coming back stronger. Are they saying the same thing in private? No. Mourinho has long been a players' manager and many he has coached adore him because he made them better, but younger ones are stung when they're called out in public.
Though a backlash would not be far away if next season starts poorly, Mourinho retains the support of most fans; there is no obvious replacement, for one thing. However, after a 10-month season that featured games in nine countries, Manchester United and football need a break from each other.
The players need a break from their manager; supporters need respite from the dull fare that was served up after April's Manchester derby. There's a general mood of flatness and despondency, and the loss to Chelsea means there will be no Wembley return for August's Community Shield against Man City, although fans will be able to live with that comfortably if the football is more entertaining next season and Mourinho's ambition to make United title winners are realised.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.