Man Utd put up a spirited fight but couldn’t overcome their two obvious shortcomings while relinquishing their only chance to stop Man City from stealing their essence…
There’s no shame in coming second to this Manchester City side. And Manchester United can have few regrets about losing the FA Cup final, even if it was their one and only hope of stopping their neighbours from robbing them of their identity as the nation’s only Treble winners. And when Erik ten Hag pores over the 96 minutes, he’ll learn nothing about his side that hasn’t been obvious for months.
United, once they belatedly roused themselves, played well at Wembley. Not brilliantly, as it was expected they might have to in order to put a stick in City’s spokes, but they weren’t allowed to. Pep Guardiola’s men granted them only moments and, in those moments, Ten Hag’s lacked the necessary nous and quality to capitalise.
Defeat served only to reinforce what we already know of United and what they need to continue their progression under Ten Hag. In short: a goalkeeper capable of playing the manager’s way; and a top-class centre-forward.
City have both and they kept one in reserve. Ederson watched from the bench as Guardiola allowed Stefan Ortega to complete his cup run. Back-up he may be but the German slotted in seamlessly, bringing the same composure to serve as both the last line of City’s defence and the first wave of their attack.
The profile of their second choice is far better matched to City than De Gea is to United’s. Playing perhaps his final game for the Red Devils, it was apparent why for the Spaniard it really ought to be.
His primary responsibility is to defend his goal and on both occasions, he was beaten and should have done better. City’s opener, coming after 13 seconds, was a wonderful strike, a consequence of sublime technique from Ilkay Gundogan during a blistering, determined start by the Blues. But also a sloppy, lackadaisical start on De Gea’s part.
He wasn’t the only one culpable for City reaping the rewards of going Route One. Casemiro was pulled into the first duel with Erling Haaland; Victor Lindelof and Fred waited for each other around a bounce; leaving Gundogan to step onto a ball that begged to be hit.
The German’s volley stunned everyone only for its timing. As soon as the ball bounced off a combination of Lindelof and Kevin De Bruyne, the next action was inevitable. To everyone except De Gea. As Gundogan struck, De Gea was still moving. Ambling, not shifting, but the glacial speed didn’t matter. The fact he wasn’t positioned, set and ready made it impossible to do anything other than watch as the ball met the net.
To say Gundogan’s volley was saveable takes nothing from the strike. But if De Gea’s preparation was as efficient as it ought to be, he wouldn’t have his feet nailed to the floor, and quite possibly makes a diving save with his right hand to his left side.
Gundogan’s second goal, another volley, was far scruffier and though he saw it late through a crowd of defenders, many of whom are instructed not to interfere with rash, desperate deflections, few would argue that a keeper more alert, better set, gets across in time to turn away a shot on its third bounce.
Harsh? Perhaps. But these are the margins at the very highest level, where the goalkeeper must also possess the passing range of an elite quarterback. De Gea illustrated once more that he does not.
It’s a measure of how much the game has changed since De Gea joined United in 2012. Eleven years ago, he was handpicked as Edwin van der Sar’s replacement largely because of his calmness and quality of pass. More than a decade on, the game has passed De Gea by. What once was his strength has become a weakness, and it’s damning that he hasn’t addressed that, as well as some other obvious flaws.
Whereas Ortega replicated Ederson, spraying passes long and short, split and square, De Gea seemed to hoik and hope. Less than half of his passes found a red shirt, with 18 of his 26 attempted long passes giving possession back to City. Contrast with Ortega, who played half the number of long passes De Gea did but was accurate with one more of them.
De Gea would doubtless point to the fact his opposite number was often playing forward towards the football’s closest imitation of He-Man. The United keeper, for the most part, was trying to find a centre-forward who isn’t. This is the second obvious shortcoming that Ten Hag must be allowed to address.
Marcus Rashford battled gamely but playing through the middle simply is not his strongest position. But Ten Hag has little choice, what with perma-crock Anthony Martial and Wout Weghorst being his other two centre-forward options.
Without a fit-for-purpose No.9 leading the line and stretching every sinew to pounce in the box, United will go no further. Especially after they tied the scoreline with a penalty – the correct application of a wretched rule – the feeling persisted that the Red Devils would need a set-piece or a piece of magic from Bruno Fernandes or sub-Alejandro Garnacho.
The latter carried the greatest threat and Garnacho is one of a few reasons why United fans should be excited about next season, once the disappointment of defeat today and City’s likely Treble haul subsides. But the Red Devils can only relish the restart if they don’t scrimp in the meantime by settling for more of the same with De Gea and anything less than an elite goalscorer.