With 14 minutes remaining, Pep Guardiola made his first substitution of the afternoon. Off came Kevin De Bruyne, the best player on the pitch, perhaps with a view to giving him a rest before next Saturday’s Champions League final. On came a fresh Phil Foden, one of the best young players in Europe. Right. Your move, Erik ten Hag.
Moving a large and unwieldy object like Weghorst from the substitutes’ bench on to a football pitch is no simple task. You cannot just send him on, there are processes and protocols to be followed. It took a team of eight men, a hydraulic lift and an intricate system of ropes and pulleys to winch the 30-year-old Dutch forward on to the touchline, whereupon he received his final instructions from Ten Hag, the contents of which we can only guess at.
“Get us a goal” would probably have been pushing his luck for a guy who has scored twice in 30 games for United. More likely it was something a little less ambitious. “Get us a free-kick.” “Get us a pass.” “Get us a header.”
In any case, Weghorst trundled on, clumped around for a while like a confused ruminant, and got his first touch four minutes after coming on. He was offside.
Not that we should be too harsh on Weghorst here: a decent, honest, hard-working player whose only real failing has simply been to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and perhaps in the wrong sport. The real problem is how a club of United’s size can spend a billion pounds in a decade on transfer fees and still find itself sending on Weghorst and Scott McTominay to try to win a cup final. How do you spend a billion pounds and still end up with a team this unbalanced, a squad this thin, players barely fit to buy the shirt let alone wear it?
On the touchline, Ten Hag was a compact, measured presence: all short and simple hand movements, lots of minor adjustments, like a man trying to arrange everyone into a family photograph. In essence this is the Ten Hag method: no sweeping overreactions, no grandiose gestures, just progress in small increments.
But here, it simply reinforced the idea this was a game won not in 2023 but the years before, a game City have really been winning for a decade. Look at the starting XIs. Look at the benches. What else, realistically, did we expect to happen?
Take Victor Lindelöf, as many United fans probably wish somebody would. In recent weeks he has covered admirably for the absences of Raphaël Varane and Lisandro Martínez in defence. But because he is Lindelöf, there is always the possibility he will make a grave error 10 seconds into a crucial game. And so it was here, as his awkward clearing header fell perfectly for Ilkay Gündogan to score the fastest goal in Cup final history. Lindelöf’s contract expires next summer and United are rumoured to want to extend it.
Or take David de Gea, a goalkeeper still occasionally capable of brilliance but whose inconsistency should probably have seen him moved on four years ago. His reactions are simply not what they were, a fact apparent long before his effort at saving Gündogan’s second goal: not so much a dive as a mild stretch, like a man trying to fish the remote control out from under the sofa.
De Gea is 32 years old, on about £375,000 a week and is reported to be on the verge of signing a new deal.
For some reason United seem to have ended up with more of these in-between players than any other club: players who are sort of good enough, or who were once good enough, or who on their best days can convince people they may still be good enough. Is Fred part of the problem or part of the solution? Is Anthony Martial? Is Donny van de Beek? Is Anthony Elanga ever going to be a thing? Is Diogo Dalot potentially world-class or just quite good? Nobody at United really seems to know.
Perhaps this pervasive flux, this corrosive ambiguity, explains why United have been such a curate’s egg this season. By most measures they have had a good campaign. They have a small core of very good players, room for improvement and a discernible playing identity. But games like this, and opponents like this, underline the size of their task.
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The gulf to City can be measured not just in goals and trophies but in years, in the reckless decisions made long before Ten Hag took charge. There is no hand gesture that will reverse the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo. There is no team talk that will undo an entire era of waste and neglect, the fat contracts that made so many underperforming players so hard to move on.
At full time most of United’s players sank to the turf. Fred knelt too, but instead of weeping or despairing he simply bowed his head, turned his palms upwards to face the sky and said a few quiet words of prayer to the almighty. Now here was a guy with the right idea.