Manchester City misfire as Haaland flops on big stage once again

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Erling Haaland;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Erling Haaland</a> struggled to make an impact as the Premier League champions flopped at Wembley.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer</span>

Before kick-off at a lovely soft sunlit Wembley Stadium, Manchester City’s fans turned their backs and engaged in a mass Cup final Poznan. At the final whistle there was a strange, optical echo of that moment. Here we had an anti-Poznan, the Poznan of departures, as the backs of the blue shirts were once again turned, this time heading towards the stairs and out along the gloomy grey Wembley concourses.

Fans never stick around at the end of a losing final. Many did so here just long enough to applaud the City players after what is still a champion season. And this always was a weird, through-the-looking-glass FA Cup final. It ended with the leaky-roof billion-dollar underdogs beating the remarkably efficient government outreach project, which is some way short of culture clubs and crazy gangs but we work with what we have.

En route it gave us Erik ten Hag’s last stand, or perhaps not last stand. There he was dancing happily at the end in dark suit, no socks and trainers, an outfit that said: “I’ve just had PE and it’s final period, somebody give me a chicken box.”

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It gave us Steve McClaren’s Wembley redemption, out there in the full June sun turning a little puce, un-wallied. It gave us familiar United noise and heat in the days before the game, the manager shemozzle overshadowing City’s own shot at an ­unprecedented ­double Double.

But then this has been United’s sole achievement in the Sky Blue glory years, to somehow become a bigger, more endlessly recycled story than all that success. Behold instead the greatest deeply weird self-immolating show on earth.

In the end defeat for City almost feels like a bigger City story. Where does a Cup final loss, fed by a slow-burn, hungover performance, leave these serial champions? What is the lesson from Manchester City: anatomy of an entirely unexpected minor chord? City’s players looked genuinely ­devastated at the end.

Pep Guardiola stood away to one side for a long time, lost in thought. He will feel very keenly that was a chance missed to do something remarkable, albeit less remarkable than basic numbers would suggest.

It would be incredible to win a ­double Double in 1974. In 2024 it’s entirely credible, even logical that it should happen such is the power at the top end. More importantly Guardiola will be aware that this was also that rarest of things, a bad game for him, and a game that adds a note of slight unease to the trajectory of this team. Have they improved? Are they as good as they should be? Has Erling Haaland actually added anything, beyond his own glorification via the personal goal stats of Erling Haaland?

Guardiola picked an odd XI here. John Stones was back out of the blue, and duly looked rusty. Pep played Mateo Kovacic in midfield, took him off, saw Jérémy Doku improve his team instantly. It was a limp City performance but also a very prosaic City team, the meat-and-potatoes version. Guardiola has entered his own under-thinking period of late, going for power and reliable defenders. Was this an under thinking too far? Kevin De Bruyne had a dreadful game. There is clearly an issue here. How will it resolve itself?

After a hungover first half, and already 2-0 down at the break, City improved with three substitutes on the pitch. Doku pulled a late goal back. They could easily have snatched an equaliser. But Guardiola will feel this. Here is a manager who was once all about process, beauty, light, a way of doing things, at least in public. He has now become a numbers guy. It was odd to hear him boasting after the title win about how nobody has done this before. If you set yourself up like that, then lose a final 2-1 to the eighth-best team in the country, on the verge of sacking their manager, well, it looks like a low.

Related: Manchester City 1-2 Manchester United: FA Cup final player ratings

Motivating this group has been part of Guardiola’s brilliance. The urge to keep going forward, never stop, keep winning. This is his mantra. It helps, of course when you have better ­players. But there is a vague sense City have begun to enjoy that persona a little. Rodri has talked a lot about his own champion mentality in recent weeks. In the final analysis the most powerful footballing entity of the age lost to a team with Sofyan Amrabat in midfield, to goals scored by a pair of teenagers, and somehow never really looked like doing ­anything else.

Is this a problem? Is Haaland a problem? He was routinely poor here, routine because he often is poor against well-organised teams in big games. Has he made this team more efficient when they’re winning. Absolutely. Has he made them better when they’re fighting hard? Absolutely not. It is such a strange interlude, 63 league goals in 67 games, a succession of medals and cups, but no real contribution to knockout games and finals, and no real sense of affecting his teammates, of making them better. He was man-marked out of the last 15 minutes of this final by Jonny Evans, who is basically an accident.

Defeat notwithstanding, City still have a claim to be the greatest team that ever kicked a ball in England, even if such things mean less and less as the game changes. But Guardiola will ponder all of this. Defeat is usually a lever for some kind of change, and he will feel this one.