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Is FA Cup triumph enough to save Ten Hag’s Man United career?

Written by on May 26, 2024

LONDON — Erik ten Hag said “I don’t know” when asked whether he has a future at Manchester United following their FA Cup final win against Manchester City on Saturday, but his body language — as he cradled the trophy in front the club’s supporters — hinted at what he really knew following months of speculation that he will be replaced as manager. This should have been his finest hour since arriving from Ajax two years ago, but it seems likely to be his last one, too.

Ten Hag, 54, patted the United crest on his club blazer as though touching his heart and then waved to the fans in several directions. If it wasn’t an emotional farewell, it was certainly a strange way to celebrate winning a second trophy in two seasons as manager.

Prior to that, he had embraced his players individually at the final whistle, but they weren’t celebratory hugs, more expressions of thanks, consoling pats on the back. His chats with Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, the two England defenders who missed the 2-1 Wembley win against City due to injury, looked like a parent telling a child that everything would be OK in the future.

There was less personal warmth with Sir Jim Ratcliffe, United’s minority owner, as Ten Hag collected the cup in the Royal Box. A businesslike handshake is probably the best way to describe it.

– Stream on ESPN+: FA Cup, LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

The backdrop to the postmatch scenes was provided by the prematch buildup. One report Friday stated that Ten Hag would be fired by United regardless of the outcome of the Cup final.

Eight years ago, Louis van Gaal suffered the same fate, with the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach dismissed within 48 hours of a 2-1 win against Crystal Palace and replaced by Jose Mourinho. If the same happens to Ten Hag — United have not confirmed the reports that he will be sacked — it will seem a particularly brutal end to a two-year reign that promised much initially but faded in his second season.

However, United’s new minority owners, Ratcliffe’s INEOS Group, have commissioned an in-depth review of all football matters at Old Trafford and the verdict will be based on what has happened in the weeks and months leading up to the Cup final. If Ten Hag loses his job, it will be because a hugely expensive team finished eighth in the Premier League, crashed out of the Champions League at the group stage and infuriated supporters with a series of inexplicably bad performances.

Beating Pep Guardiola’s City, the four-time Premier League champions, is by some distance Ten Hag’s biggest win, but the reality is that he left it far too late, to the extent that it looks like an anomaly — one that is nowhere near enough to overturn the evidence stacked up against him.

It is a confusing situation.

United have not denied that they have assessed alternative coaches in recent months, including England manager Gareth Southgate, Brentford’s Thomas Frank and Ipswich’s Kieran McKenna, yet they have also said that INEOS are planning next season with Ten Hag in mind. Half an hour after telling the BBC at Wembley that he did not know if would be at United next season, he said in his news conference that he has been told he is part of the plans.

“How many times do I have to tell you?” Ten Hag asked members of the media. “Every time is the same question, do I have to repeat myself 10,15, 20 times? They don’t have to tell me every week if they tell me so often. I heard it many times.”

Time will tell, but a club statement on a quiet day in the weeks ahead thanking Ten Hag for his efforts would be no surprise. That’s how football works, and he knows that as well as anyone who has earned a living from the game.

If this is his parting shot, though, what a way to go. An FA Cup win against United’s crosstown rivals, delivered by goals from two of their teenage stars.

Ten Hag has turned Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo — both 19 — into first-team regulars during his time in charge. They are the bright lights of United’s future.

While they might not yet warrant comparisons to Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo when they became first-team stars at United 20 years ago, Ten Hag certainly deserves credit for putting his faith in them to perform. He hasn’t been able to coax such top-level performances this season from his established players, though, including Marcus Rashford, Casemiro and Raphaël Varane.

If Ten Hag is to be replaced, his successor will have two jewels to polish in Garnacho and Mainoo.

Garnacho put United ahead when he took advantage of a mixup between City’s Josko Gvardiol and goalkeeper Stefan Ortega on 30 minutes. The Argentina winger then helped create the second for Mainoo nine minutes later with a right-wing run followed by a pass to Bruno Fernandes, who brilliantly teed up Mainoo with a first-time pass.

Sofyan Amrabat‘s experience alongside Mainoo in midfield was key, helping United hold their own against City’s powerful engine room. Ten Hag deserves a nod for selecting the Morocco international in this game.

Although Jérémy Doku‘s 87th-minute goal, which beat keeper André Onana too easily at the near post, ensured a tense end to the game for United, Ten Hag’s players held on to win the Cup for the first time in eight years and make it two trophies in two seasons for the Dutchman.

“When I started here I said I am here to win and also I want to build a team and both I am doing,” Ten Hag said. “But if they don’t want me anymore, I go somewhere else and win games and win trophies.”

Defiant to the end, and Ten Hag has earned the right to be so.

While this felt like the beginning of something, it also felt like a curtain call. Varane is leaving as a free agent, Amrabat will head back to Fiorentina at the end of his loan move and question marks hover over the futures of Rashford, Casemiro, Maguire, Victor Lindelöf, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and more.

The biggest departure is almost certain to be that of Ten Hag, though. Deep down, he knows how it works, and not even an FA Cup win over Manchester City is likely to be enough to save him.

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