And to the surprise of many, Smalling was a militant force alongside the intelligent Daley Blind, moving the ball efficiently and closing any space that Kasper Dolberg may have exploited.
Mourinho, reflecting on his side’s triumph, noted that he told Smalling to avoid moving the ball into midfield.
— Tiago Estêvão (@TiagoEstv) June 13, 2017
The Europa League final, over the last few years, has been accompanied with little in the form of narrative – Sevilla have basically just won the damn thing with relative ease. That’s the narrative right there.
Stockholm, however, witnessed football losing and Mourinho, in turn, emerging triumphant. This was a chance for the newest generation of Ajax wonder-kids to impress on the big stage and re-invoke that Total Football spirit in the post-truth world of 2017.
But Mourinho had other ideas. The Portuguese kept the exuberance of Ajax firmly under the surface by shutting down any space for attacking midfielders to exploit, using Ander Herrera closely in conjunction with his full-backs to ensure that Ajax were always in front of – rather than in behind – Smalling and Blind.
And whilst Ajax, seemingly frozen by United’s physicality and the lack of space to delve into, remained unable to move up the pitch in any meaningful way, Smalling and Blind had the bustling target of Marouane Fellaini higher up the pitch, who would effortlessly chest the ball down and bring the likes of Juan Mata, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford into the game.
It was, above anything, a life lesson for any manager, craftily handed out by a man the footballing world loves to hate. The lesson being, of course, that finals are won by the team with the most efficient – rather than aesthetically pleasing – game plan.