FA Cup final triumph a fitting last act of defiance for embattled Erik ten Hag

<span>Erik ten Hag has added the FA Cup to last season’s Carabao Cup triumph at Manchester United.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Erik ten Hag has added the FA Cup to last season’s Carabao Cup triumph at Manchester United.Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

It was one of the great shows of ego and defiance, pure theatre, pure Louis van Gaal. As another embattled Manchester United manager from the Netherlands found himself in the same position, it was impossible to ignore the echoes. Erik ten Hag’s delivery was different, more measured and understated. But, like Van Gaal before him, he had entered the arena for a fight. He made his punches count.

“I show you the Cup,” Van Gaal said in 2016 after leading United to victory against Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final as he headed for the sack; he was informed of the decision 24 hours later. Van Gaal strode into the Wembley press conference room with the trophy, which he set down on the end of the desk before repositioning it bang in front of him after he took his seat.

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“I don’t discuss it with my friends of the media who already sacked me for six months,” Van Gaal said, glowering gloriously. “Which manager can do what I have done?”

Ten Hag, it turns out. Few people had given him or his chaotic United team any chance in the FA Cup final on Saturday against Pep Guardiola and the remorseless Manchester City machine. United, lest anyone forget, had finished the Premier League season 31 points behind City, beaten home and away by them. Ten Hag’s employers have not forgotten that bit.

This was very much Ten Hag’s day. At the end of the line, after the trauma of an eighth-placed league finish plus a bottom-of-the-group Champions League exit, he was still able to author a stunning 2-1 triumph; his tactical approach spot on, the plus points of the season to the fore.

They were, most obviously, Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo, who scored the goals, and the captain, Bruno Fernandes. “I can’t even walk,” a delighted Fernandes said as he left the stadium, exaggerating slightly, his point nonetheless by standing. He leaves everything on the pitch. Lisandro Martínez and the departing Raphaël Varane were excellent in central defence while Diogo Dalot, out of position at left‑back, rounded off a fine individual season.

When Ten Hag marched in to take the post-match questions, there was no hint of a smile. Unlike Van Gaal, he did not bring the Cup with him. But he was similarly all business and in the emotion of the moment it was possible to drift along with his arguments. United, he pointed out, had been in a “mess” when he took over in the summer of 2022. It will take time and hard work to return them to the top, not least because the squad patently lacks depth, especially to cope with the kind of injury crises he has endured this season.

Ten Hag has put down foundations; young talent is coming through. And he has won the FA Cup after the Carabao Cup victory from his first season. Before his arrival, United’s managers post‑Sir Alex Ferguson had delivered three trophies between them (excluding Community Shields). Winning do‑or‑die finals changes the narrative, the legacy.

“We have to do better,” Ten Hag said, when considering his immediate future. “And if they [the United hierarchy] don’t want me any more, then I go anywhere else to win trophies because that is what I did my whole career.”

It was a line he repeated on two further occasions and it looked as though he was veering into confrontation territory, parting‑shot stuff. Ten Hag was emboldened and why not? He had heard the United support cheer raucously when his image was shown on the Wembley big screen during the celebrations and it was of a piece with those little snapshots that shine a light on the joy of the victors.

When Ferguson walked through the mixed zone, the area where journalists wait to talk to the players, he was asked whether he had time for one question. “One question from you lot?” he said. “Come on Sir Alex, no need to be like that …” Ferguson stopped before the exit, turned round and, with a beaming smile, he had one word: “Fantastic.”

Harry Maguire, who missed the game through injury, was along soon after and he unfurled a red United match shirt, holding it up like a signing photograph. On the back? Mainoo 37. When Rasmus Højlund strutted through with a bottle of champagne, he took an enthusiastic swig in front of the reporters and watched it fizz up and spill. If a footballer is going to lack technique, you would probably want it to be in this area.

Everything was sweet from a United point of view and it recalled the elation of the epic 4-3 quarter‑final win against Liverpool at Old Trafford in mid-March. At that point it felt as though Ten Hag could plot a course away from the frustration. The sense was that the higher‑ups were leaning towards keeping him for next season. It would all be OK. Except it was not.

The next game was the shambolic 1-1 draw at Brentford, the prompt for a dispiriting run, and this is what cannot be forgotten about the season under Ten Hag. Yes, there have been exhilarating moments, many of them snatched from the jaws of defeat, but United have never been able to use them as turning points. Momentum has been elusive.

It is always possible to hear managers complain that their teams have not got the results their performances deserve. Under Ten Hag this season, United have got many results they have not deserved, the Brentford draw being one example. When the substitute Mason Mount put United 1-0 up in stoppage time the Brentford manager, Thomas Frank, said he had lost his faith in the football gods. His team had hit the woodwork four times.

It has been impossible to believe that Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who bought a 27.7 % stake in United in February and has control of football operations at Old Trafford, will base his continued employment of Ten Hag on a Cup final. It will be the body of evidence over a season. Moreover, changing Ten Hag is the easiest way for Ratcliffe to define the start of a new era.

The afterglow of a Cup victory against City endures, a part of it taking in revenge for the defeat against them in the final last season. But in the mix, too, are Brighton and Crystal Palace home, Newcastle away, Bournemouth home, West Ham and Nottingham Forest away, Fulham home, Palace away.

The death-or-glory high press from the front five, the openness against the transition, the defensive horror shows. The negative substitutions. The failure to close out winning positions. The decline of Casemiro and Christian Eriksen. The form of Marcus Rashford. The Jadon Sancho situation. Antony. Sofyan Amrabat. Ten Hag will always have Wembley.