I Can’t Believe We Won This Match

Well, if this was Erik ten Hag’s last game in charge, he certainly went out on a high note.

Going into last season’s FA Cup Final, Manchester United were clear underdogs, but there were some signs of hope. United had beaten City the last time they faced each other and were coming into the final in decent form, finishing third in the league and winning the Carabao Cup — the club’s first trophy since 2017.

This year, however, United came into the match looking like the Washington Generals going against City’s Harlem Globetrotters. Coming off their worst league finish in the Premier League era, United were particularly toothless against the noisy neighbors this year, being decisively beaten in both league matches.

United couldn’t even point to being a good cup team this season, bowing out early in the Carabao Cup and Champions League and nearly blowing the FA Cup semifinals to a Championship side.

And while City were basking in the glow of an unprecedented fourth consecutive Premier League title, United came in with extra distractions and questions swirling around them. Most notably, news broke yesterday that Erik ten Hag would follow in the footsteps of another Dutch manager, Louis van Gaal, and get sacked after the FA Cup Final regardless of the result.

As such, you could forgive United for being extra-unfocused against City, who were going for an unprecedented second consecutive Premier League/FA Cup double. It was like that scene in Avengers: Infinity War where Dr. Strange views 14,000,605 possible realities but they only win in 1 of them.

Well, looks like we live in that one reality. Today, United outplayed City and deservedly beat them 2-1 to claim their 13th FA Cup in club history.

Like any comprehensive victory there were plenty of strong performances throughout the United team.

The goals came from two of United’s teenaged sensations (Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo) with captain Bruno Fernandes providing a sublime assist on what turned out to be the match-winner.

Serial winner Raphael Varane gave us one last world class performance as he and his favorite United partner, Lisandro Martinez, kept “Big Game” Erling Haaland quiet for almost the entire match.

Meanwhile, a resurgent Sofyan Amrabat and Mainoo did a number on United-killers Phil Foden and Kevin De Bruyne, and fullbacks Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan-Bissaka shut down City’s makeshift wingers (at least until Pep Guardiola corrected his selection errors and brought in Jeremy Doku and Julian Alvarez).

The much maligned Andre Onana played well and made several good saves — although he did let in a soft goal near the end of the match, giving United fans PTSD thanks to all of the times we blew late leads this season (a big reason why ten Hag might not get a second chance).

Scott McTominay was comparatively quiet but worked hard and helped fill the gaps in midfield. The Scot was one of the few United players who came out of this season with his reputation enhanced, and he’ll have an interesting choice this offseason. Should he stick around and be United’s supersub and occasional starter? Or should he go to a club like Everton where he’d be a starter and maybe even captain?

Even Marcus Rashford, who was so bad towards the end of the season that it may have cost him his England spot, looked dangerous.

And of course there was ten Hag. The manager hasn’t always gotten his tactics right, nor has his coaching philosophy always been coherent during his two years in charge. He not only got his gameplan right today, but he also showed that his players are still committed to him. Most importantly, today’s result allowed him to say, with some justification, that with something close to his preferred XI, he not only decisively beat the best team in the country but won his second major trophy in two years.

“Two trophies in two seasons and three finals. That’s not bad,” ten Hag said defiantly after the match. “If they don’t want me any more, I’ll go somewhere else and win trophies. That’s what I do.”

Time will tell whether today’s win will be enough to grant ten Hag a reprieve. The match commentators called this result the biggest upset since Wigan Athletic beat Man City in 2013.

The worst part? They were right.

In fact, this was arguably a bigger upset. Going into today’s final, United were 9/1 underdogs on some betting sites— steeper than the 8/1 odds on Wigan when they took on a less-accomplished City team a decade ago.

That a club as big and storied as United came into this match on the same footing as a club like Wigan or Wimbledon is probably the main reason why ten Hag might not be back next season. INEOS and Sir Jim Ratcliffe never seemed sold on ten Hag, and this result could be way too little way too late.

“They play in this moment really fantastic football, both Liverpool and Manchester City,” ten Hag famously said upon joining United. “But you always see that an era can come to an end. I am looking forward to battle with them.”

Instead, it looks like the ten Hag era could be the one that comes to a premature end. He probably won’t be the only one who heads to the door. Indeed, there are a lot of hard questions that will need to be asked of this United team and organization and a lot of difficult decisions that will need to be made.

But that can wait until tomorrow. Today is about celebration and joy — and taking a justifiable amount of pride in an incredible accomplishment. Most importantly, it’s about being able to say, once again: Manchester is red!

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