Sunday 26 May 2024

Manchester United FA Cup winners 2024

Manchester United certainly took the scenic route to a 13th FA Cup victory, delivered in improbable and unlikely fashion at Wembley on Saturday.
In one of those deliciously unexpected twists top level sport so often delivers, United and their erudite manager Erik ten Hag produced an all-time performance for the ages to defy the odds and cause one of the biggest shocks in the history of this iconic competition.

It was United's finest hour under the Dutchman and perhaps our best since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson - watching from the posh seats up in the Gods at the national stadium. It was a performance of spirit, grit, hunger, desire, resilience, discipline and work rate and, indeed, at times United even went toe to toe with and dominated their more illustrious cross-town rivals. Qualities conspicuous in absentia this season and a performance which begs the question: where has this United been for the last ten months? 
Out of the wreckage, from the very nadir of United's worst ever Premier League era-season, came the undoubted zenith. 

I saw a team out there with every player singing from the same hymn sheet, all battling and fighting for each other, not just showing ability but the desire and attitude to win every tackle, header and second ball. This was a team giving everything, fighting and scrapping as if their lives depended on it, for their manager, fans and club.
City's all conquering juggernaut - this imperious, pre-eminent and magnificent trophy winning machine - found themselves in the rare position of chasing shadows.

Their uncharacteristic carelessness was epitomised in United's 30th-minute opener. Diogo Dalot's long ball forward should have been dealt with by Joskvo Gvardiol. Instead, the Croatian left-back headed the ball back to his onrushing keeper Stefan Ortega. A breakdown in communication had seen City's usually unflappable stand in stopper come too far off his line and Alejandro Garnacho gambled to seize on the loose ball and pass into the empty net.

If the Reds first goal had needed an element of luck, when Kobbie Mainoo steered in our second nine minutes further on, it was at the culmination of a sweeping move Pep himself would have been proud of. At that stage, we dared to dream. 

And so Manchester United's FA Cup triumph of 2024 will go down in the annals as perhaps the greatest of them all. Consider our opponents, our season, the off-field shenanigans, the crippling injury crisis which has brought the squad to their knees, and just about everything in between. Consider the fact we were written off as no hopers, outsiders, lambs to the slaughter, a mere fly on the window for City's march to the double double. Odds as long as 40/1 with some bookies. The fact we finished 31 points behind Guardiola's side in the league. I felt we 'could' win, I believed we 'might'. 
But you can surely count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who actually thought we would. Surely even the swathes of red descending on Wembley did so more in hope than tangible expectation.

As the old adage says: sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination and United's road to FA Cup redemption in 2024 certainly won't be forgotten in a hurry. Perhaps, looking back now all these months on, our name was etched on the famous trophy from the start. Some things are just meant to be. 

Whilst our 2-0 third round win at Wigan was relatively routine, what followed was anything but. Our FA Cup rollercoaster encapsulated this madcap season in microcosm. For 21 minutes in round four, Newport County's Rodney Parade was rocking to the beat of an inspired fightback from the League Two team. For 21 minutes, United were facing humiliation, a 2-0 lead gone in front of the BBC cameras and the fourth tier minnows on the cusp of surely the greatest upset of all time. And didn't the ABU's let us know it. Newport's David had his foot firmly on the throat of United's Goliath. For those 21 minutes, United were reeling, ragged and on the ropes. In the end, though, as we have so often, this confusingly chaotic United side kicked and screamed their way to victory.
By comparison, our 1-0 win in round five did not carry the same jeopardy, but how we still needed Casemiro's late intervention at the death to edge out Nottingham Forest.

Then came the quarter final, and THAT game with the old enemy. We've talked about  that here - quite simply the best game of football I have witnessed in my 30-odd years on this earth. Words still cannot do it justice to this day. 1-0 up, 2-1 and 3-2 down, we seemed dead and buried not once but twice, then seconds away from penalties. Amad went on to write the final chapter of that particular story.
Yet incredibly, the Liverpool thriller was only the aperitif. United would serve up an Eton mess entirely of their own making as the semi final's comfortable 3-0 lead eviscerated at the hands of Coventry's climb-off-the-canvas comeback. This time, only penalties spared our blushes.
The Championship side had been the draw everyone wanted and it looked like being a rare day of comfort until United lost their heads, the lead, and - almost - the tie. Arise Victor Torp's toenail. Frame it and put it in the Old Trafford archives.

And so it was: an FA Cup final victory for the annals. For United and ten Hag, a silver lining at the end of a desperately poor season. A victory so out of keeping, so unexpected, it almost seems to have come from another world. 
ten Hag has now delivered two trophies in two seasons.. Indeed, he stands in esteemed company alongside only our great Scots and Ernest Magnall as the only United managers to win trophies in successive campaigns at United. 
That's impressive enough, especially in this era of ultra-City dominance. Not only that, but he's done so with the best core of young talent I've seen at this club for years. Two teenagers promoted on his watch proved our match winners at Wembley. If that's not proof of this man's work at United, I don't know what is. Indeed, if that WAS his last game in charge, and I honestly hope it isn't, then what a legacy he  will leave us. 

Not just Mainoo and Garnacho but Amad and Willy Kambwala too. Rasmus Hojlund signed as a 21-year-old focal point. He's earned the chance to have another season and develop them further, to build his project and take us forward into next season. 

It would be very harsh to sack him. He's building something and deserves to stay. The last thing we want to do now is ruin his project by ripping it out and starting again. Let's now hope INEOS make the right call. 

Thursday 23 May 2024

United facing football's Everest against derby rivals

Manchester United head to Wembley for the FA Cup final as probably the biggest underdogs English football's showpiece match has ever seen.

United are as long as 17/1 to win with some bookmakers, simply staggering odds in a two-horse race. Off the back of United's worst season in living memory it is easy to see why. The very last thing you'd want in that situation is to face a side who have just achieved something you never did, not even during your heyday. Namely win four Premier League titles on the bounce.
For context, relegated Wigan, probably the biggest Goliath-slayers in final history, were shorter odds in 2013. 

It begs the question: Just how do you beat the unbeatable? Exactly how do you stop this rampant, all-conquering Manchester City juggernaut? A side who haven't tasted defeat for 35 games as they put together the second longest such streak by a top flight team in history. A side hoovering up silverware left, right and centre and - despite the cloud hanging over the Etihad - staking a claim as the finest English football has ever seen. 
Another FA Cup on Saturday would see Pep Guardiola's side become the first team to complete successive league and cup doubles and give the Catalan manager his eighteenth piece of major silverware in his eight-year stint across the city. 

All this whilst United have endured our worst ever Premier League season. Fourteen defeats, eighth place and a negative goal difference. A manager seemingly on the precipice. We got into the final by the very skin of our teeth - or, more pertinently, Victor Torp's toenails. Maybe, in hindsight, elimination would have saved us from complete annihilation at the hands of this mob on Saturday. It looks akin to the task of scaling Everest in slippers and without supplementary oxygen. Getting past this City side looks to be football's toughest challenge. Arsenal's 2024 record reads W16 D1 L1 but Guardiola's men hit that achingly familiar groove of nine straight wins to surge to yet another title. City would become the first side since the Gunners (2013/14&2014/15) to take back to back FA Cups. Surely Pep must get bored? Does he not wake up one morning and think everything is all too easy? 

But there are plenty of reasons for optimism. We don't have to look far for an example of an unfancied  side usurping the overwhelming favourites and defying the odds. Give it up for Atalanta. 
The Serie A side took on a Leverkusen side pushing for an unbeaten treble, a run of 51 games, but prevailed with ease. Proof, if it were needed, than anything can happen in football. Pressure can effect you in different ways, especially in a one off game, a final, with the world watching against your fiercest rivals. It's eleven footballers against another eleven footballers. 

United are further boosted by the return to fitness and form of Lisandro Martinez, Marcus Rashford, Raphael Varane and Rasmus Hojlund. Varane got 20 minutes at Brighton whilst Licha got 60 minutes under his belt suggesting both are likely to start. Having your two best centre-backs available for your biggest game of the season comes as a boost. United - despite that eighth placed finish - finished with successive wins to boost momentum and confidence ahead of the final. 
We'll need City to have an off day and if they miss opportunities whilst playing at a level we haven't seen all season (even that might not be enough) but the fact we've been so poor during the campaign does, in itself, give us hope. We have a chance, a puncher's chance, in this one off game, a derby final, but you would fancy City 99 times out of 100. 

The players will want to salvage something from the season, it's our last shot at securing European football and the Reds will, as ever, be backed in numbers and volume at Wembley. The players will want to restore some pride and give something back. For City, it's just another game, but for us it means everything. We want this and need it more. The chance to end a dismal season with a silver lining and stopping City's slickers in their tracks. To follow in the footsteps of our Women's team and lift the world's oldest domestic knockout cup for a 13th time.

If this will be Erik ten Hag's last game in charge of United then what better way to bow out with a win in his third domestic cup final in two seasons. ten Hag's compatriot Louis van Gaal was sacked despite winning the famous old trophy, and it seems INEOS could make a change regardless of Saturday's denouement. Of course this is merely rumour at the minute but if he does leave, he will do so with an impressive cup record akin to Ron Atkinson's sides of the 80s. 

It's a well known fact of nature wild animals are more dangerous when they're frightened or wounded. They become more aggressive because they're scared and confused and believe predators may take advantage on their vulnerable state. It feels the need to protect itself at all costs and so lashes out aggressively and viciously at its nearest rival. It is the fighting survival instinct of that wounded creature United will need to conjure up from somewhere inside them in this final. 

Tuesday 7 May 2024

Groundhog day for Manchester United - again

Two years ago to the very day, Manchester United suffered one of our worst defeats in recent memory as an abject showing at a rampant Brighton put the seal on our worst ever Premier League season. 
Two weeks later, interim boss Ralf Rangnick was gone, replaced by United's number one target - the name at the top of everyone's list - Ajax's visionary, revolutionary manager Erik ten Hag.

Twenty four months and 731 days on, and here we are again. Only the opposition was different this time. United need four points from our last three games just to equal our lowest ever total of 58 from 2021-22. We have lost 13 times already (it was 12 in the Solskjaer/Rangnick season) and currently occupy eighth spot - one place lower than we finished even under David Moyes a decade ago. 

We've conceded 81 goals in all competitions across the season, the most ever in a single campaign since the mid 70s. 55 of those have come in the league, only two fewer than our all-time Premier League worst two seasons ago but still with three games to play. 

With title-chasing Arsenal and revitalised Newcastle still to come to Old Trafford, and a final day trip to bogey side Brighton, I cannot see us getting another point never mind winning another game. That's before we even discuss the FA Cup final. Throw in 62 injuries (perhaps a discussion for another day), a boardroom takeover not completed until December, corrupt refereeing and the form of a few players falling off a cliff, and it has simply been a disaster of a season. It's end cannot come soon enough. 
Even taking into account the mitigating factors, there was simply no excuse for yet another humiliation on the road on Monday night. 

The type of performance ten Hag was supposed to eradicate reared it's ugly head again and, perhaps even more worryingly, he seemed powerless to prevent it.

From the moment a ragtag United conceded the first goal under the slightest of pressure, the game was done. From the moment Michael Olise received a throw in on half way, walked into the acres of space in front of him and kept going to finish well, there was no way back. What a great idea it was to allow one of the best goalscoring wingers in the land to simply cut a swathe through the middle of our non existent midfield without tracking him, closing down or squeezing the central area. Maybe we should have allowed him a few more yards to run, just in case. It was a goal so spectacularly shambolic it was almost impressive. United could do a lot worse than to sign Olise in the summer.  He was the best player on the park by a considerable distance. 

Wherever and whenever Palace fancied attacking, there were allowed to at will by a team lacking fight, skill, energy, attitude and any cohesion whatsoever. Under Oliver Glasner, the hitherto unknown Austrian appointed by the Eagles in February, Palace were dynamic, direct, pacy, penetrative and powerful - everything ten Hag's United were not. This is Glasner's first foray into English football, he has been in charge at Selhurst Park for a little over two months and there's already an identikit, a vision and a plan. A completely new way of playing against whatever this is meant to be from ten Hag's United.

The fact nine of the eleven starters at Palace are ten Hag era players was most damning of all. If the players have downed tools for yet another manager, then what does that say about the recruitment? Ther are his boys, his signings. Only the full-backs Diogo Dalot and Aaron Wan - Bissaka pre date ten Hag. Andre Onana, Casemiro, Antony, Mason Mount and Rasmus Hojlund were all acquired for hefty sums of money. Jonny Evans and Christian Eriksen were free signings. Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho are this side's future, the two players we should build the team around. Both have risen to prominence under ten Hag. But without the injured Bruno Fernandes, they looked around for leadership where there was none. This was a day where even two of United's better performers in a desperate season got dragged down to their colleagues levels. 

Whilst we're not in the business of singling out any individual for criticism, we need to talk about Casemiro. None of United's apparent superstars covered themselves in glory, but the Brazilian was perhaps the most abhorrent culprit. The five time Champions League winner was reduced to nothing more than a spectator as Olise and his partner in crime on the opposite winger, Eberechi Eze, with Jean - Phillippe Mateta the kind of powerful, physical presence even a regular centre-half has nightmares over.
Casemiro, signed as the figurehead of United's revival as a totemic and transformative serial winner, instead epitomised our cowardly, spineless and gutless surrender. He dived in needlessly instead of holding his position to allow Olise as much room as he needed for the opener. Then he was meekly barged off the ball on the byline by Daniel Munoz  to cross for Olise to score  his second, and Palace's fourth. In his defence, he is not a centre-half but has looked devoid of energy and industry, sinking under instead of stepping up as United have floundered of late. Casemiro looks leggy, he looks done and is fully checked out as a United player. 

An offer from the mega rich Saudi league or MLS will surely be coming his way in the summer - he is our highest earner and is meant to be one of United's leadership group. After a stunning debut season at Old Trafford, it is alarming to witness how quickly even the basics seem to have deserted him. Is he a victim of United's implosion, or part of the cause? Alongside him, Jonny Evans looked every inch his 36 years as he was caught flat footed by Mateta to saunter through and slam in the second. It is not Evans fault - he was the only centre-back we had available and was thrown in at the eleventh hour despite failing a fitness test. United's thirteenth different centre back pairing of the season was, unsurprisingly, found wanting. 

If something ceases to function, can it be said to exist at all? Christian Eriksen is another - like Casemiro - who was signed to herald in a new era but he was upstaged by his less heralded, but supremely more mobile and progressive counterpart Adam Wharton. 

All eyes have been on United's talented youngster Mainoo, and rightfully so, but even he was overshadowed by the performance of his young compatriot. The Englishman seemed drawn to the ball like a magnet, always in the right place at exactly the right moment for Palace. He was excellent positionally and caught the eye with his combative energy and slick, between the lines passing. The obligatory gap in United's midfield became a gaping chasm as Wharton seized control of everything around him, the standout player in a midfield consisting of Mainoo and Mount. In stark contrast, none of those in Red ever seemed to be where they've needed, with time and space granted to each and every opponents in midfield, on the wings and in behind. 

Up front, Hojlund toiled admirably but again got no service and was hooked after 80 minutes of nothing. This current mess is not his fault and he should be absolved of blame. 

So where does this leave us? Are we going to sack ten Hag and simply restart the same rinse and repeat cycle? Or do we put this down as a freakishly bad one off and build again with the Dutchman next season? A new manager doesn't make these players any better. A new manager doesn't de-age Casemiro or make Eriksen mark properly. If we do decide to part ways, most of the squad need to go with him. I would only definitely keep Garnacho, Hojlund, Mainoo and - dependent on fitness - Martinez. The rest I would not be against moving on. When are we going to stop pinning all the blame on our manager and look for the players to take responsibility. There is no doubt ten Hag is a good manager. He overachieved in his first season at United and has not suddenly lost his mojo overnight. He is just at a club where no manager can succeed. 
It is a mystery how you can go from that brilliant, exciting young Ajax side which took Europe by storm, to this. A side which is everything and nothing. If he does indeed go to recently deposed German champions Bayern Munich, I've no doubt he will do well there. 
Each time United have opted for a change in the Old Trafford hotseat, there has been a clear front runner to be the successor. This time, Thomas Tuchel is probably the best of a bad bunch but there's no one as a very obvious upgrade on ten Hag. 

As INEOS approach their first summer in control of all football operations, the job facing them - and United - is one akin to climbing Everest in slippers. For the first time in almost 20 years, I have confidence the men in the corridors of power at Old Trafford will get this right. 
Two years on from United's battering at Brighton, nothing, on the pitch at least, has changed.