FA Cup 2024: Eric ten Hag outwits Pep Guardiola in what could be Manchester United swansong

Eric ten Hag with the FA Cup Trophy
Eric ten Hag with the FA Cup Trophy (PC: Manchester United/X)

“Manchester is and always will be Red!” This tweet came from David de Gea, former Manchester United goalkeeper, just minutes after United’s 2-1 victory over arch-rivals Manchester City in the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium. Despite starting the match as the underdog against the just-crowned Premier League champions, Eric ten Hag’s men rose to the occasion and secured a place in next year’s Europa League with this epic and well-deserved victory.

It was the Red Devils’ 13th FA Cup title and the timing of this trophy could not have been better. A horrible league season had culminated with United eighth and having a negative goal difference. But while teams like Arsenal and Liverpool produced some breathtaking football at times during the season, it was United that ended it with the second-biggest domestic trophy in the Old Trafford cabinet.

It has been a tough week for ten Hag with all the speculation over his managerial future. On the eve of the game, The Guardian reported that he would be sacked after the final irrespective of the result. But, after this win and the way he tactically checkmated Guardiola’s side, the new owners of United could have second thoughts. Lisandro Martinez showed that what this team had missed for most of the season due to his injury, while there was a fitting farewell for Raphael Varane, who again delivered on a big stage while donning the famous red jersey for the last time.

ten Hag’s masterclass

The way ten Hag’s team pressed today surprised everyone. City’s players were unusually lax while playing out from the back, but several of the mistakes were the result of the kind of energetic and coordinated pressing United had been incapable of for much of the season. City had hardly any clear-cut chances in the first half as United defended as a team. When they saw an opportunity, they counter attacked and grabbed it. It was this pressure that forced a mistake from Josko Gvardiol, leading to Alejandro Garnacho side-footing in the opener.

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Kobbie Mainoo
Kobbie Mainoo (PC: Manchester United/X)

Ten Hag did not start Rasmus Hojlund, his out-and-out No.9, but with young legs like Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo, he was clear in his mind how to dismantle City’s rearguard on the counter.  Last season, when United finished third in the league and won the League Cup, the pair of Varane and Martinez at the back helped the team. This time around, both missed most of the season due to their respective injuries.

Mainoo, Future Superstar

He is still just 19 but the way he has handled the pressure of representing a club like United, especially on big occasions, is just unbelievable. A few days ago, he was picked in England’s preliminary squad for Euro 2024. In the FA Cup final, he had an 84 per cent pass completion rate against a City midfield consisting of Rodri and Mateo Kovacic. Apart from his passing ability, he has the uncanny knack of scoring goals by being in the right place at the right time.

In the build-up to the second goal, skipper Bruno Fernandes could have easily gone for a shot, but he passed it to Mainoo who slotted the ball away with the composure of a veteran. United must look to build a team for the future around him and Garnacho, both of whom were also part of the Man United team that won the FA Youth Cup in 2022.

Next season, United will look for a fresh start in the league and the Europa League. But, will ten Hag be there? That question is still to be answered. Louis van Gaal was sacked by the club just two days after winning the FA Cup in 2016. In two seasons, despite not getting his first-choice XI available most of the time, ten Hag has bagged two trophies. United’s struggles with their main centre-backs missing were hardly unique.  Three years ago, Liverpool had one of their worst years under Jurgen Klopp after Virgil van Dijk missed most of the season. Arsenal’s dream of winning the league in 2022-23 vanished once William Saliba was injured in April.

Eric ten Hag with Garnachon and Mainoo
Eric ten Hag with Garnachon and Mainoo (PC: Manchester United/X)

The Cup final tactics may not have impressed everyone, but they worked. After the final, when asked about his manager’s approach, Bruno Fernandes told ITV Sport: “He prepares every game well. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think you could see it was about being compact and making pressure between the lines.”

Asked about his future, ten Hag did not hold back. “Two trophies in two seasons and three finals… not bad,” he said, in what was a combative press conference. “If they don’t want me anymore, I’ll go somewhere else and win trophies. That’s what I do”.

Will United’s decision-makers have a change of heart? Or is this ten Hag’s last act as United manager? For the fans, though, this is celebration time, and a chance to rain on City’s title parade through Manchester, scheduled for Sunday.

Also Read: No quick fixes at Man United even if ten Hag goes after FA Cup final