Why FA Cup win may not stop Manchester United sacking Erik ten Hag

Having prepared exactly the right game plan for the FA Cup final, Erik ten Hag seemed to have prepared a ready-made response, too. The Dutch coach had just added a touch more glory to Manchester United’s history but, given everything, questions about his future inevitably dominated the aftermath of the victory over Manchester City.

Ten Hag spoke about winning another trophy, the team's “identity”, his record, injuries and how United were “a mess” when he took over, just as he did in two immediate post-game interviews. Then, like the game itself, there was a surprise.

“If they don’t want me any more, then I go anywhere else to win trophies because that is what I did my whole career.”

It was as telling a comment as there was, if also one with some assertiveness behind it. Ten Hag generally handled a difficult situation well, given the entire game had been framed by questions about his future.

It also puts INEOS in a more difficult position, given that any sacking would clearly be unpopular with a significant part of the fanbase. This is a test of that, at least if they haven’t already made their decision. The reality is that almost everything about the day suggested the call has already been made.

At the same time as Ten Hag was speaking to broadcasters, Sir Jim Ratcliffe walked through the mixed zone with Sir Dave Brailsford beside him. He initially went to stop for an interview, only for the first question to be whether Ten Hag would continue as manager. Ratcliffe’s facial expression momentarily changed from a smile as he registered the question, before turning and walking away without saying anything. It maybe said more than any actual answer ever could. The United minority owner, who will now take all major football decisions, didn’t mention Ten Hag in an earlier comment.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s cordial handshake with Erik ten Hag prompted plenty of speculation about the Man Utd manager’s future (The FA via Getty Images)
Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s cordial handshake with Erik ten Hag prompted plenty of speculation about the Man Utd manager’s future (The FA via Getty Images)

Many of the manager’s own answers sounded as if he had accepted his fate. Although he said in an earlier interview to Dutch media that INEOS told him they wanted him to continue, he refused to specify when that was in his post-game press conference.

“This is what they always tell me,” he first said, before being pressed on when. “But how many times do I have to tell you, 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?”

Amid all of this, there was a more touching comment from Ten Hag.

“The FA Cup was absolutely one on my bucket list,” he said. “It is such a huge trophy. I am so happy we won it with the players, the team and the staff. It is a real team performance.”

Even an analysis of what this all means should of course acknowledge what the day was actually about, since this is what Manchester United are supposed to be about: winning trophies; glory. It was precisely because that has recently seemed such a remote prospect, as Manchester City claim everything before them, that this win was more deeply relished. Elements of it were almost sweeter than many of those won under Sir Alex Ferguson, who walked through the mixed zone laughing about refusing interviews because he’s now retired. The United fans gleefully taunted City about the 115 charges for alleged breaches of Financial Fair Play rules, from which the English champions stress their innocence.

Erik ten Hag led Man United to an unlikely FA Cup win (Getty Images)
Erik ten Hag led Man United to an unlikely FA Cup win (Getty Images)

What really stood out about this performance was how Ten Hag’s team seemed to distil all of these emotions into something defiant, where they seized the moment. It did ultimately look like it meant more to United than City. Ten Hag’s team played for him, and with everything.

“I really enjoyed this final,” he went on. “First, lifting the trophy but especially the way we played. Then you see all the work we put in together, staff, players, togetherness to develop and progress this team. And if you then play at this level against the best team in the world… I am very pleased.”

Ten Hag also repeatedly stressed the point about absences, and how he had key players back. That was most important in central defence, and it is no coincidence that one of United’s most solid displays of the season came with Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez back together. The Argentine set a tone with one brilliant early challenge.

And yet it was almost within this approach that there were arguments why Ten Hag shouldn’t continue. As supreme as this performance was, it wasn’t actually the type of football the Dutch coach was brought in to introduce. It wasn’t the “identity” he spoke of. It was just the blueprint for playing Pep Guardiola’s City, although admittedly carried out to the maximum.

And that’s where the hinge is.

Pep Guardiola admits he got his plan wrong in the FA Cup final (AFP via Getty Images)
Pep Guardiola admits he got his plan wrong in the FA Cup final (AFP via Getty Images)

A successful approach for a one-off game doesn’t necessarily point to a successful approach for the long term. That’s why the point about the centre-halves is almost misplaced. It was better to have them back, sure, but the actual uncertainty without them comes from when United have to play a more expansive game.

This was also where Ten Hag’s post-game mood was a bit more questionable. He kept repeating how “the team is progressing” and they’re “exactly where I want them” but that is in eighth place in the table, with most of the matches over the past few months representing performances where United were subjected to extreme pressure. If that’s where he wants them, it would be easy to see why INEOS no longer want Ten Hag.

It was also why this win stood out all the more. The 2-1 victory was by far United’s best of the season, with impressive conviction on display. The issue was that it felt a product of the circumstances rather than the wider context and how the team is managed.

The response also reflected another issue. Ten Hag has generally refused to accept responsibility, at least in public.

Right now, for his part, he has accepted a second medal of his United career. He’s restored the club to victory. The great value of that, however, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth keeping him.