FA Cup success against City may not save United boss Erik ten Hag from the sack

After a promising first year in charge, the 2023-24 season has done significant damage to Ten Hag’s standing

This isn’t 1990, but it isn’t 2016 either. Alex Ferguson may have kept his job by winning the FA Cup in 1989-90 while Louis van Gaal learned of his dismissal while celebrating on the pitch at Wembley after the 2015-16 final, but the difference in the situations wasn’t just to do with the diminishing value of the FA Cup.

Perhaps it was always a little anachronistic in 2024 to be wondering whether Erik ten Hag might be saved by victory in Saturday’s FA Cup final, but this had been a weird throwback of a campaign for Manchester United. As it is, the decision has been taken and Ten Hag at least will not face quite the indignity suffered by Van Gaal.

Ferguson’s route to the final had been via a preposterous series of tight and tense games, none of them at Old Trafford, only one against a top-flight club. There was a narrative quality to them: for United the FA Cup that season came to seem like a quest, each round — the Mark Robins winner against Nottingham Forest, the whistle from the crowd at Hereford, the 3-2 at Newcastle, the epic semi-final against Oldham — a trial to be overcome en route to the grail. It was the sort of campaign that encouraged fans to invest themselves.

Van Gaal’s run to the FA Cup was quotidian by comparison. They indeed needed a late Anthony Martial equaliser against West Ham in the sixth round and Martial got an injury-time winner in the semi-final after Romelu Lukaku had missed a penalty for Everton, but it simply didn’t capture the imagination in the way 1989-90 had, in part because a lot of fans had already given up on Van Gaal’s football.


With hindsight, United’s FA Cup win in 1990 presaged much of what was to come for Ferguson. There was a sense in that run that he had become a fortunate coach; a more generous interpretation would be that he instilled his players with the mental resilience and physical fitness that enabled them to find late equalisers, to turn around unpromising situations.

The waning status of the FA Cup cannot be denied. The competition seems constantly to be scrabbling for survival, grudgingly squeezed in by an elite who seem far more interested in lucrative friendlies in emerging markets than the oldest knockout competition in the world. It would always have been ludicrous if Ten Hag’s fate had come to rest on a single bounce of a ball, a refereeing decision or a penalty shoot-out.

He has been at the club for two years; there was a significant body of work on which to make an informed judgment without surrendering the decision to one match and the fates. It wasn’t just to do with on-field issues; the transfers over which he had direct influence have made little to no positive impact.

And yet there has been something otherworldly about this run to the final and in that sense, even in the way United have scrambled past lower-division opposition, there has been an echo of 1989-90.

Squandering a 2-0 lead against Newport and a 3-0 lead against Coventry probably isn’t advisable as a longer-term strategy but it made those ties memorable. By staring humiliation in the face, United have given those games a significance that would not have been there with a more straightforward victory (the opposite side of the paradox that has beset City, that the ease of their wins somehow seems to make them mean less).

Just in case the echoes of 1990 weren’t obvious enough, there was a 1-0 win away to Forest in there, and Robins himself popped up in the semi-final. But even 1989-90 had nothing quite as preposterous as the 4-3 quarter-final win over Liverpool, which ended with Bruno Fernandes at centre back and Antony at left back. It may be very hard to imagine United beating this remorseless City in the final, but then most of this Cup run has bordered on the inconceivable. If implausibility and euphoria could come together, perhaps Ten Hag could somehow emerge, case hardened after an extremely difficult season, as the man to lead United forward.

That was the case that might have been made by those who consider a football manager to be a magus, conjuring performances from players through some deep psychological intuition and a capacity to bend the fates to his will. More technocratic critics would point out that this has been United’s worst Premier League season (by position) and that there have been several baffling statements from Ten Hag that have severely damaged his credibility.

United have indeed sustained a lot of injuries this season — looked at by time lost, they have been the worst-afflicted club in the league — and Ten Hag is due some sympathy for that, particularly given how he has had to chop and change his centre backs, but that still does not explain why often half his team has pressed while the other half has sat deep, leaving a great chasm in midfield. It doesn’t explain why they conceded 660 shots this season, more than anyone other than Sheffield United, who broke the Premier League record for goals against. It doesn’t explain a goal difference of -1 or the fact that they won only five games by more than a single goal; even United’s wins have often failed to convince.

But also more damaging have been Ten Hag’s public pronouncements. To claim that he was not worried about shots conceded, that sceptical media coverage of the collapse against Coventry was “a disgrace”, that criticism of the 4-0 defeat at Crystal Palace came from people who “don’t have any knowledge of football, they don’t have any knowledge about managing a football team or they just aren’t up to it” just made him look delusional.

Most managers can say daft things under pressure and to an extent all have to present the public with an embellished version of reality. But the Ten Hag variant was so distant from anything resembling the actuality as to undermine his credibility. And given how much of management is essentially a giant confidence trick, convincing players that a plan will elevate them to new heights, once credibility goes it’s extremely difficult for a manager to come back.

What made Ten Hag’s position worse is that, after a spell in which it seemed he might be saved by a lack of available candidates, Mauricio Pochettino and Thomas Tuchel, both of whom have interested United in the past, are suddenly available. It’s true that winning the Cup would create an emotional case for keeping Ten Hag and maybe beating City would suggest he had some inexplicable messianic power. But after a highly promising first year, this season has inflicted enormous damage on Ten Hag’s standing. Cup win or not, it’s hard to see how he comes back from that. — Guardian