16 Conclusions on Man City 1-2 Man Utd: Ten Hag future, De Bruyne, Haaland and Rodri awful, Fernandes phenomenal

Matt Stead
Bruno Fernandes, Rodri, Erik ten Hag, Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden during the FA Cup final between Manchester City and Man Utd
Man Utd stunned Manchester City at Wembley

Erik ten Hag has somehow made things even worse for Man Utd by winning the actual FA Cup; Kevin De Bruyne, Erling Haaland and Manchester City were awful.


1) Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is Man Utd being hilariously incompetent and winning in spite of their own best efforts.

Erik ten Hag is not the first Man Utd manager whose last match involved the procurement of silverware. He isn’t even the first Dutch coach to do it in an FA Cup final. Louis van Gaal warned his compatriot against taking the Old Trafford reins and might be suffering flashbacks of his own downfall.

Jose Mourinho was installed as Van Gaal’s replacement almost as soon as the final whistle blew and Alan Pardew’s dreams were dashed at Wembley in 2016. Little over two years later, the Portuguese’s preparations for a Premier League game against Newcastle were dogged by speculation surrounding his future, with it claimed he would be sacked ‘whatever the ­outcome’ of that match.

Man Utd scored three goals in the final 20 minutes of a 3-2 victory because that is how these things work.

It granted only a stay of execution: Mourinho was gone two months later. And that is relevant for Ten Hag because one result and performance – and both were sensational in triumphing over Manchester City – cannot nullify an entire season’s body of work which has pointed to him no longer being the best individual for this role, especially in the context of the INEOS takeover and new regime.

But he deserves this moment not to be tainted by the same leaks which have undermined Man Utd for years. Ten Hag has done as much as anyone in combatting that toxic culture and laying the foundations for genuine growth. Those 90 almost perfectly planned and executed minutes do not outweigh the general historic misery which came before it this campaign but the players ensuring the Dutchman had his moment with the trophy lift was telling and genuinely heart-warming; they have let him down and however unfair it seems, he bears those consequences.

Ten Hag is not a bad manager – far, far from it – but the size of the task has consumed him. Glimpses of collective, collaborative, compact brilliance like this have been frustratingly brief from a squad in a considerably better place than he found it.


2) Pep Guardiola said it himself: “Because of my decisions, we were not in the right positions to attack them. It was my mistake, my gameplan was not good. The players know the reason why. Tactically, it was not good, I had a feeling it was not good. It didn’t work, as simple as that.”

In the first half especially, for as intense, focused, determined and clear in their ideas as Man Utd were, Manchester City were every bit as ponderous, uninspired and imprecise. There was an explicit improvement after a second-half adjustment but this was not a defeat against the run of play.

It felt like they didn’t expect Man Utd to either be competent or have a plan, which might be entirely fair assumptions on the basis of all recent evidence but still. By the time Guardiola and Manchester City found their feet it was too late.

Perhaps this is just what happens after you win a Treble. Man Utd followed theirs up by retaining the Premier League, getting knocked out of the Champions League quarter-finals by Real Madrid and being eliminated in the third round of the League Cup, exactly like Manchester City this campaign.

At least Man Utd had the sensibility not to even enter the FA Cup in 2000; for the first 45 minutes of the 2024 final, Guardiola’s approach meant they needn’t have bothered either.

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3) If this was to be Casemiro’s final game as a Man Utd player, what a way to bow out from a man who vowed to “fix this” before he joined.

It started with a lovely preview graphic posted on social media, which was slightly undercut by the budget version of Ronaldo’s 1998 World Cup final build-up: Casemiro was included on the official teamsheet as a substitute, only to be later replaced by Willy Kambwala with it revealed the Brazilian felt the recurrence of a muscle injury while warming up in the dressing room. It remains to be seen whether Nike were involved.

It was a blessing in disguise. The centre-halves were brilliant without those waters being muddied by Casemiro dropping back, while Sofyan Amrabat produced his winter 2022 Morocco form to help close those spaces near Phil Foden which had Ten Hag worried.

Casemiro held Manchester United’s hand through their last final. Fifteen months later, this was a display to show he has already been outgrown and is holding them back. At least he doesn’t still have two years left on a ludicrously expensive contract.


4) The story at the start of the game was that most sobering of bedroom thoughts: would they last 12 seconds? That was all it took for Manchester City to establish their lead in the 2023 final and tantalisingly enough, the same blueprint was followed.

The ball was played back to Stefan Ortega at kick-off and yet again he launched it forward. Only this time the header was won by Scott McTominay instead of Erling Haaland and Man Utd had passed their first milestone.

Manchester City did continue the move, with Foden slipping Josko Gvardiol in behind on the left. His cross was aimed towards Haaland but a well-timed Lisandro Martinez nudge in the back averted the danger.

Martinez was sensational. His lack of consistent availability has been an obvious factor in Manchester United’s struggles – albeit not mitigating enough to nearly justify their general defensive ineptitude – and this was a wonderful show of defiance from a player who was not going to be beaten on the day.

Only Raphael Varane, who himself was sublime in his final game, made more headed clearances than a player whose height was once scoffed at. But with positioning, concentration and aggression of that calibre, Martinez nullified Haaland masterfully.

That slide tackle on Kevin De Bruyne straight after the first goal was glorious, coming at a time when Manchester City looked truly rattled. Of course Doku only scored when Martinez had gone off. Any internal investigation Man Utd conduct into their overworked medical department must pivot around keeping the Argentinean fit so they can build around him.


5) It was enjoyable to hear punditry talk before the match about how Kyle Walker had changed his game, when the first two situations in which he was called into action involved him giving Marcus Rashford a slight head start seemingly specifically so he could catch him. Is it a deliberate thing Walker does to psychologically taunt his opponents? Or is he genuinely caught off-guard every time by the most simple of attacking runs?

In fairness to Walker, he was Manchester City’s biggest threat with some speculative long-range shots in the second half, which is uncomfortably revealing.


6) Manchester City struggling to create much of anything would be bad enough, but so much of their play was underpinned by unforced errors and atrocious decision-making.

De Bruyne put a simple six-yard ball out for a throw-in when aiming for Gvardiol. Rodri’s pass which directly led to United’s second goal was loose and lazy. The first half ended with a De Bruyne free-kick bouncing meekly into Andre Onana’s hands. The second started with Rodri shooting from his own half; it was well over and Onana had already retreated to his line by the time it reached him in any case.

These were seasoned veterans, battle-hardened trophy winners, making basic, stupid and avoidable mistakes. At one point in the first half, Manchester City lived on the edge for about 30 panicked seconds in which Walker passed it across his own goal, De Bruyne dallied and was caught in possession on the edge of his own area and Ortega gave it to Mateo Kovacic, facing his goal about eight yards out with McTominay and Bruno Fernandes in the vicinity.

That danger only passed when Nathan Ake finally hammered the ball into the air and away but for so much of this game, Manchester City were their own worst enemy.


7) This was Rodri’s first defeat in 90 minutes since March 2023 for Spain against Scotland. McTominay is obviously his kryptonite.

The constant back-and-forth over whether an unbeaten record should include losses on penalties can mercifully cease. But especially in light of that absolute nonsense he spouted about Arsenal’s inferior “mentality” recently, it will be interesting to hear what the world’s sorest loser makes of a cup final defeat in which he was actively detrimental to his team.


8) Again, the opener came from Rodri’s own slack pass, intercepted by Amrabat and played to Diogo Dalot, who hit it beyond the high defensive line and into space for Alejandro Garnacho to attack. He did so with relish but could not possibly have expected Gvardiol to nod the ball over the advancing Ortega to grant him an open goal.

Garnacho cannot take much credit for applying the pressure – it was nothing more than a mindless moment caused by a breakdown in communication – but the way he held his line to stay onside and make the moment possible was proof of his elite intelligence and concentration.

The sudden step he took just as Dalot shaped to pass meant Stones was deeper; it was a perfect reverse of the way in which Gabriel stepped up to play Garnacho himself offside at a pivotal point of Arsenal’s win over Man Utd in September. And considering how Ten Hag has not stopped discussing that game in the eight months since, it is probable that he took specific inspiration from it.


9) That was Garnacho showing he is more than simply a skilful winger. The second goal exemplified a calm, composed directorship with which Fernandes is hardly synonymous.

With another Manchester City attack breaking down, Fernandes controlled the ball and resisted any temptation to launch an instant counter. Instead of playing the easy pass he took another touch to eliminate Kovacic and find Kobbie Mainoo in space, who in turn identified the relative acres Rashford occupied on the left.

A sensational, sweeping team move culminated in Garnacho coming in from the right and finding Fernandes, whose first-time flick to set up Mainoo was stunning. Fernandes had engineered and orchestrated a consummate dismantling of the champions in that moment.

The speculation surrounding his future has been entirely manufactured by a fervent media. Man Utd can be amateurish and often downright imbecilic but even they would not cast aside a captain and player as phenomenal and committed as Fernandes; they must realise how lucky they are to have him. It was prime Minanda from someone who will absolutely appreciate the comparison.

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10) Not mentioning that Rashford switch was deliberate; it warranted a spotlight of its own. Fernandes had actually called for the pass and was in a great position, centre circle with no Manchester City players around him. But that option never occurred to Rashford, who instead hit an extraordinary ball out to Garnacho on the other wing.

Rashford had a good game and while some players were better, none conjured a moment of quality like that. This season can be so poor but he really can be quite exceptional.


11) Mainoo’s finish was as good as it needed to be, the eventual winning goal capping a performance of ludicrous discipline belying his teenage years.

Manchester United’s three youngest players dragged them through. Mainoo was tirelessly brilliant until the end, Garnacho had been critical before his injury-time substitution and Rasmus Hojlund, on for the final quarter of an hour plus stoppages, was quietly superb and imperious in helping relieve pressure. Only Foden and Doku drew more fouls than the Dane, whose purchase of a booking for Julian Alvarez was the game’s final meaningful action, dispelling any lingering hopes of a comeback.

It does not always feel as such, but the future at Old Trafford at least has the potential to be bright when viewed through the prism of the only three players they are not open to selling.


12) Not many Manchester City starters emerged with even vague credit, but Foden was probably the best of them. The two occasions Manchester United’s resistance properly wavered before the goal came through him.

First, Foden found Kovacic’s bursting run after opening up the angle exquisitely, but there was no-one to convert the subsequent cut-back. Then there very specifically was someone on hand to finish Foden’s clever ball on the hour but unfortunately enough it was Alvarez, who skewed it wide. In between came a Foden airshot in the area which summed things up neatly.

De Bruyne was dreadful, his last input suitably being a cross floated to no-one at the back post before he was taken off in the 56th minute. It is rare for the Belgian, Haaland and to a lesser but still true extent Foden to all prove so ineffective in the same match, but there was no rush to assume even a fraction of their game-changing responsibility. Manchester City still massively miss Ilkay Gundogan.


13) Doku tried to singularly carry that burden when he came on at the break. The ensuing battle against Aaron Wan-Bissaka was a thing of unadulterated beauty in which neither man really lost. The Man UTtd defender was never beaten, yet the Manchester City forward scored.

Where his teammates seemed fearful of trying anything, Doku emptied his entire bag of tricks on the Wembley pitch to see what worked. He tried running to the byline, cutting back, jinking one way and then the other. At one point he dropped into the middle third of his own area to collect the ball, then tried a sudden turn to attack the wide-open space ahead, but Wan-Bissaka simply spider legged the soul from his body.

Wan-Bissaka did an incredible man-marking job as he so often does, but Doku’s breakthrough came when he was assigned to Garnacho, who granted him that inch or so of space the Belgian needed to get his shot away. It required Onana to commit the goalkeeping cardinal sin of Being Beaten At The Near Post but Doku finally had the goal his persistence warranted.

He brings something different to this Manchester City team and that is invaluable. But it is always remarkable to watch Wan-Bissaka, an average defender in almost every other aspect of his game, prove he is genuinely among the best players in the world in one-v-one situations.


📣 TO THE COMMENTS! Should this result keep Ten Hag from the sack? Join the debate here.


14) It was thought that would prompt an inevitable comeback, that Manchester City would simply overwhelm Man Utd, who would in turn crumble with their defiance finally broken. But in almost ten minutes including stoppage-time thereafter, there was nothing. Doku tried a few more dribbles, Walker had another shot blocked and Manuel Akanji skied one from about 25 yards.

Vincent Kompany is currently tricking Bayern Munich into thinking he should be their next manager, but his role in convincing an entire generation of Manchester City defenders to shoot from range should not be ignored.

There was no onslaught and Man Utd did not struggle to defend a slender lead. They were weirdly comfortable and cool under pressure. Fernandes shooting from the halfway line in the 93rd minute, and the substituted McTominay timewasting by chucking the ball back on the pitch while Ortega went to fetch another from one of the nearby cones behind his goal, was a lovely final touch.


15) Erling Haaland is a big-game bottler.


16) An understated part of this Man Utd win is how much it should specifically wind up so many clubs.

Manchester City, obviously, who must now celebrate a measly record fourth consecutive English league title which is tinged with genuine disappointment at what could and perhaps should have been.

Chelsea, who are relegated to a place they almost certainly don’t want in the Europa Conference League because of the ensuing FFP repercussions.

Newcastle, who are condemned to a season out of European football altogether.

Arsenal, who must be mightily annoyed this Manchester City complacency and vulnerability was not present at any other point over the past two months, and who must now accept the discourse about whether finishing eighth with an FA Cup is better than coming second with no trophy.

And perhaps even Man Utd themselves, who if reports are to be believed might have preferred the expected straightforward Wembley trouncing to make their planned manager sacking more palatable, rather than the coaching masterclass which contradicted pretty much all of the season which came before it.

If this was to be Ten Hag’s final stand, that is a legacy to be incredibly proud of.