Erik ten Hag belatedly produces a tactical masterclass to land FA Cup - and make it harder to sack him

Manchester United shocked their local rivals with an organised and determined showing at Wembley

Richard Jolly
Wembley Stadium
Saturday 25 May 2024 17:29 BST
(The FA via Getty Images)

So to the most illogical conclusion to a season for the most illogical of teams. This might have been the weirdest thing Manchester United have done; not so much winning the FA Cup, odd as it was, but the opponents, the manner, the context.

Erik ten Hag came dressed for his own funeral, his dark suit and naturally stern demeanour accentuating the sense he would be a witness to his own demise. Instead, it was the end of Manchester City’s double double. They did not make history after all. Ten Hag may yet be consigned to United’s history but if so, what a way to go.

United have arguably never been such underdogs in a final; not against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona; not against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. They did not just win against Guardiola’s City. They won competently. The most disorganised team in the country looked organised. Ten Hag had a gameplan that wasn’t based on chaos. The only hint of ineptitude came when Andre Onana fumbled Jeremy Doku’s shot into his own net. It has been a theme of the season: United are never far away from a Ten Hag signing erring.

They had been a long way away from a Ten Hag masterclass. They got one. It was a reminder of last year when he seemed pragmatic, tactically astute, a manager with the ability to beat the best; even if it only really happened at Old Trafford then. It came from belatedly concluding that his tactics for most of the season were nonsensical.

Because United had a midfield. It isn’t normally news, but this is a team who had tended to press high with a low block, who were stretched from one end of the pitch to the other with a massive gap in between the sections of the side, were suddenly compact.

They had two blocks of three shielding a back four. They limited City to three shots by half-time. Even when they were subjected to an onslaught in the second half, they had players behind the ball, commitment, conviction, cohesion.

It helped, too, that they had counter-attacking pace. Ten Hag had a strategy that, in different ways, produced both goals. As United’s season has been an exercise in the bizarre, their opener felt fitting, Josko Gvardiol looping a header over Stefan Ortega for Alejandro Garnacho to slot a shot into the empty net. Yet their second was a genuinely high-class goal; Marcus Rashford’s diagonal pass, Alejandro Garnacho’s run and cutback, Bruno Fernandes’ deft lay-off, Kobbie Mainoo’s precise finish.

Mainoo celebrates his Wembley winner
Mainoo celebrates his Wembley winner (AFP via Getty Images)

There was a tactic of using the pace of their wingers, directing balls over the City defence to Garnacho and the recalled Rashford. There were scorers who represented reasons to keep Ten Hag: Youth Cup winners together in 2022, scorers in the FA Cup final together in 2024, Garnacho and Mainoo are the two most visible examples of his faith in the young. Each was outstanding.

Yet United have recent evidence a bigger lead at Wembley can be precarious. Could the team who gave up a 3-0 start at Wembley to Coventry in the semi-final hold on to smaller advantage against the best team in the country? Yes, actually, even if it was halved late on.

There were points when United were so focused on defence they had no outlet, no one within 70 yards of Ortega’s goal. There was, perhaps, the initial fillip that they negotiated the first 13 seconds without conceding, in itself an improvement on last year’s FA Cup final.

This should prove Sofyan Amrabat’s farewell to United but it was a glorious end to an otherwise wretched loan spell. He had the tenacity required.

It was the end for Raphael Varane, a serial Champions League winner bidding goodbye after three seasons, his fist pumps to the United supporters showing an FA Cup still meant something to him. There was a cameo for Jonny Evans: the feelgood story of United’s season, having rung his friend Darren Fletcher to ask if he could train with his old club to maintain his fitness, he ended up showing his positional nous and cool head in a Cup final. He may be leaving.

Ten Hag with the FA Cup
Ten Hag with the FA Cup (The FA via Getty Images)

So, perhaps, will Ten Hag.

But a manager who has cut an isolated figure at times this season was hugged by Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martinez, two defenders whose injuries have been factors in United’s slide.

His fate rests in the hands of the onlooking powerbrokers. For Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Sir Dave Brailsford and Joel and Avram Glazer, sacking Erik ten Hag just got harder.

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