Ten Hag leaves it late with FA Cup triumph as Man United exit looms

As Ten Hag celebrated his maiden FA Cup triumph, comparisons arose with a similar feat achieved eight years prior by Louis Van Gaal, who won the FA Cup and was sacked two days later.

Published : May 26, 2024 09:14 IST , Chennai - 5 MINS READ

As Ten Hag celebrated his maiden FA Cup triumph, comparisons arose with a similar feat achieved eight years prior by Louis Van Gaal.
As Ten Hag celebrated his maiden FA Cup triumph, comparisons arose with a similar feat achieved eight years prior by Louis Van Gaal. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

As Ten Hag celebrated his maiden FA Cup triumph, comparisons arose with a similar feat achieved eight years prior by Louis Van Gaal. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

On Saturday at Wembley, the entire narrative surrounding the build-up to the FA Cup final was about Erik Ten Hag and how Manchester City would provide the proverbial kill to the Dutchman and his diabolical tenure at Manchester United.

It was the four-time reigning Premier League champion vs the team that finished eighth. A  BBC statistic in the pre-match stated that United was the 95th worst team in the top five European leagues for shots faced per game (17.6 shots) out of 96 top-flight teams. City was ranked first with 7.7 shots per game. If a first-time watcher had tuned in then, one would wonder if United was the ‘David’ in this scenario. Yet, it was a match-up between a squad assembled for over a billion pounds against another squad assembled for over a billion pounds.

Ten Hag, who in the build-up to the final gave an exit interview of sorts to Dutch website VI.NL, made the brave call of dropping Casemiro and putting his faith in the injury-prone center-back pairing of Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane. Ten Hag’s first-choice pairing was only making its sixth start in the club’s 52 matches this season. 


The Dutchman followed the template of Tottenham Hotspur in its 0-2 defeat to City 10 days earlier, when Ange Postecoglou opted to play a 4-3-3 with an attacking midfielder as a false nine with two wider players to run in behind City’s defence. In United’s attack, Bruno Fernandes was flanked by Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho to provide the width.

While Spurs dominated possession, United was content in holding its defensive shape and closing down City with its aggressive man-to-man pressing, not allowing City to settle into its passing rhythm in the final third of the pitch. City had just three shots in the first half, with just one on target. For a side which has had several structural issues and conceded on average 18 shots per game, Ten Hag’s United did well to disrupt City.

Five days earlier, in City’s league title-clinching win over West Ham United, City scored a third goal in the 60th minute in the second half, restoring its two-goal cushion and effectively sealing the championship. If there was ever a goal which encapsulated City manager Pep Guardiola’s 15-year coaching philosophy, that was it. 30 passes, spread inside the West Ham half over 75 seconds, with eight players involved in the build-up, before Rodri side-footing the ball into the net from the edge of the box.

But against United, City was unable to penetrate the backline or find an opening to fire a shot at goal.

At the other end of the pitch, Guardiola and his side were undone by the antithesis of his philosophy. It took just one long ball behind City’s high defensive line to send the alarm bells ringing, and Garnacho tapped United into the lead.

For United’s second goal, the team covered the entire length of the pitch in just seven passes in the space of 19 seconds, which led to Kobbie Mainoo slotting the ball past Stefan Ortega. It wasn’t exactly ‘route one’ football. The United midfielders Fernandes and Mainoo brilliantly beat the City squeeze in the middle before United attacked in numbers to disrupt the backline. Garnacho found Bruno, who slipped in a through ball for Mainoo’s finish.

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This was only the 10th instance, City had conceded two goals or more across 59 matches. And only the second time, it had gone behind by two goals. When it happened the first time, City overturned the deficit to win 3-2 in the second half. There was no comeback this time.

However, United also needed an uncharacteristic City to pull off this upset.

City midfielder Rodri, who was on a 74-match unbeaten streak, rarely misplaces a pass. But here, he gave it away to Sofian Amrabat for United’s opening goal, which led to Josko Gvardiol inadvertently looping his header over Stefan Ortega to set up Garnacho. Even Guardiola ditched his turtleneck sweater, which boasted a 100 per cent win record in English domestic cup finals for the Spaniard, to suit up for the occasion in Wembley.

Guardiola would later admit he ‘got it wrong’ tactically, but he gave his side the best chance in the second half when he tweaked his system. He brought on winger Jeremy Doku on the left and shifted Phil Foden centrally and Manuel Akanji into the center-back to allow John Stones to move into the midfield. Kyle Walker was asked to tuck into a three-man backline in possession with the City captain’s recovery runs and pace a key component in shutting down United’s threat on the counter.

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When City did turn it on in the second period, Erling Haaland smacked the crossbar, and Julian Alvarez tucked his effort wide, after sneaking in behind the United defence. A frustrated City were found shooting from outside the box once again with most of them coming from the likes of Walker, Akanji and Stones. One such effort from Doku, the brightest spark for City, managed to find its way past Andre Onana’s feeble right hand and sneak into the net in the 87th minute, which was a ‘little bit late’ by Guardiola’s admission.

As Ten Hag celebrated his first FA Cup title, it was hard not to compare this triumph with the one from eight years ago, involving another Dutchman and a former United manager, Louis Van Gaal, who won the FA Cup and was sacked two days later. Unfortunately, for Ten Hag, too, the writing is on the wall, and the silverware has come a little too late.

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