Was FA Cup glory Ten Hag’s final farewell?

  • 25 May 2024

If Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag is going, then after the finest moment of his time in charge, with the FA Cup being lifted in front of thousands of ecstatic red hordes at Wembley, is quite the way to go.

Ten Hag spent the build-up to this final showpiece against all-conquering arch-rivals Manchester City shrouded in speculation that this would be his final game, a dead manager walking, simply waiting for new United co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe to give him the final shove over the precipice.

Manchester City were here to inflict the last humiliation on him before departure, to deliver the final blow and see a beleaguered figure on his way.

Instead, in one of those delicious twists sport so often delivers, Ten Hag produced a tactical masterclass to beat Manchester City 2-1, the Dutchman hoisted off his feet in wild celebration at the final whistle by warrior defender Lisandro Martinez before moving to share that rarest of experiences, offering the hand of consolation to a beaten Pep Guardiola.

The scale of United’s achievement when the pressure was at its highest for the manager and players is that this was City’s first loss, apart from a penalty shootout against Real Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final, since they lost at Aston Villa on 6 December.

Whether this makes any difference to Old Trafford’s decision makers, led by Ratcliffe, remains to be seen but for all his suffering and the criticism he has had – much of it justified after such a dismal season – Ten Hag rightly enjoyed this moment in the Wembley sun.

Ratcliffe and his new-look football structure are unlikely to shape the future based on one game, no matter how glorious, and a pertinent question might be to ask where the United that outflanked City, especially in a thrillng first half, have been all season?

The post-match statement issued by Ratcliffe did not contain any hints about Ten Hag’s future but it did not offer any public support either, which looked significant.

The manager’s answer, as it has been all along, is to correctly point out that he inherited a club and team which interim predecessor Ralf Rangnick claimed needed “open heart surgery”.

He also pointed to a horrendous injury list, saying after United’s win: “I tell you this all year. When the players are fit we can play good football. This was a very good performance against the best team in the world.

“I think the criticism has been unfair. The team. Me as well. It was not right. We didn’t have the players. We have seen the same things, not always good football – definitely not – but we had to make compromises all the time and then you can’t play the football you want.

“I had the full squad available maybe three or four times in two years. Even here we were missing massive players like Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw and Casemiro.”

Manchester United co-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe greets manager Erik ten Haag after the FA Cup Final win


All fair points but undermined by a lack of strategy and control on too many occasions, and a Champions League campaign that was a wash-out, United not even getting out of the group stage.

And United certainly flew by the seat of their pants as they took a scenic route to winning the FA Cup for the 13th time.

They lost a two-goal lead before beating League Two Newport County in the fourth round, secured a dramatic 4-3 win against Liverpool in the quarter-final with Amad Diallo’s goal in the last seconds of extra time, before avoiding serious embarrassment in the semi-final, giving up a 3-0 advantage to Championship side Coventry City.

This wonderful win over the four-time Premier League champions was almost routine in comparison but nothing must be taken away from Ten Hag’s masterly gameplan and organisation that brought them two goals to cherish in the first half.

And the fact they were scored by teenagers Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo will bring added pleasure, if that is possible, to United, a club that has always cherished young talent.

Mainoo’s goal was a thing of beauty, Marcus Rashford’s perfect raking cross finding Garnacho, whose cross was met by the subtle touch and perfect vision of Bruno Fernandes.

Mainoo, at just 19, was voted player of the match with a display of consumate maturity and control, proving he has the temperament for the biggest occasion against the best opposition – which will be noted by England manager Gareth Southgate ahead of Euro 2024.

You could also see how much it meant to Rashford after a miserable week in which his decline this season was underlined by Southgate’s decision to axe the forward from England’s 33-man provisional squad for the tournament in Germany.

Rashford was in tears during United’s celebrations with their fans after the FA Cup was presented.

Player of the match Kobbie Mainoo celebrates with the FA Cup after Manchester United's Wembley win


So where does all this leave Ten Hag?

Taken in the round, this had been a poor season up to this point, until the glorious salvation and redemption in this unlikely triumph that brings Europa League football to Old Trafford next season.

One side of the ledger he can point to two trophies in two seasons, the FA Cup and last season’s Carabao Cup, in an era of huge domestic domination by Manchester City.

Ten Hag has also had to work within a flawed structure with desperately poor recruitment (some of it made by him) which Ratcliffe, long-time cohort Sir Dave Brailsford, chief executive Omar Berrada and sporting director Dan Ashworth, when he finally arrives at Old Trafford, are trying to cure.

Will Ratcliffe feel Ten Hag might operate better within that new structure or will the lingering belief that his mind is made up, irrespective of United pulling off this stunning FA Cup win, prove to be correct?

The problem for the manager lies elsewhere, with so much of this season locked in a decline with a team lacking any obvious plan or identity, resulting in nine home losses and the concession of a club record 58 league goals.

Guardiola, who worked with Ten Hag at Bayern Munich, backed his old colleague: “He’s a lovely person and an extraordinary manager.”

Ten Hag was certainly extraordinary on this day but this has been the exception rather than the rule. Whether it will be enough to save him remains to be seen, and remains in doubt.

For now, however, Ten Hag deserves to enjoy the glorious success he fashioned free of those worries – for one night at least.

The long-term future for him and Manchester United will be clear soon enough.

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