·26 February 2023
·26 February 2023
1) The last Man Utd manager to claim silverware – indeed the last Man Utd manager to lift the League Cup – was a curious champion of the importance and existence of England’s third biggest domestic trophy. Jose Mourinho built his Chelsea dynasty on the foundations laid by winning the competition in 2005, the first tangible proof of coaching brilliance delivered within months of his appointment at a rising Premier League force.
“For me, it’s not so important,” Mourinho said then. “I think for the fans, for the club, for the players – especially for the players who were in this club for a few years without silverware – I think it’s important. It’s very difficult to win for the first time and for these players it’s the first time. For the club it’s the first time over the last five years, so it was very important for us.”
The wait for Man Utd was six years but the sentiment might well be the same for Ten Hag, who will happily add the League Cup to a solid enough personal collection of winner’s medals with Ajax. His squad contains champions of world and continent for club and country who similarly need no further experience of the taste of glory. But only David de Gea, Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford had previously won trophies with Man Utd, and that was long enough ago as to render it moot. The fans, the club and the players needed this.
And while it does nothing to guarantee the manager’s long-term success, it has been used often enough by excellent coaches as a gilded platform to establish footballing empires. As long as it feels like another step on the journey instead of the final destination, it can be celebrated and framed perfectly – and this only seems like the start for Ten Hag at Man Utd.
2) It was a Mourinho final performance of sorts. When the Portuguese led Man Utd to Europa League victory over Ajax in 2017, they scored both their goals by the 48th minute and defended diligently thereafter, counter-attacking when possible but retaining complete focus and organisation. The opposition ended with more shots and a far greater share of possession but that was down to the game state; Mourinho wanted it to be that way and was in complete control.
Man Utd scored both their goals against Newcastle by the 39th minute and protected it vigilantly while always posing a threat at the other end. The opposition ended with more shots and a far greater share of possession but that was down to the game state; Ten Hag wanted it to be that way and was in complete control. It was yet another defeat for the poets.
3) Newcastle would no doubt like to have thrown the form book out of the window for a cup final but no amount of attempted defenestration would have sufficed. The Magpies have scored nine goals in their last 12 games and with no clean sheets in four matches this was no mild slump they hoped to overcome on a grand stage.
Eddie Howe’s side were decent and might point to the concession of a goal given after a narrow offside call and a heavily deflected effort. But they produced precious little even when they had nothing to lose at 2-0 down with a half to play. It was an agonisingly ordinary performance that failed to match an extraordinary occasion.
No Newcastle supporter will forget their first cup final experience this millennium and the 3,000-word thinkpieces about how this pain was a necessary precursor to world domination might already be written by some. But it could take a while for the pride at having come this far to override the disappointment at falling so short. Newcastle’s season is petering out and any suggestion this final might have provided an adrenaline shot fell wide of the mark.
4) The single most anticipated moment of all at Wembley did not disappoint. Within 10 seconds of Bruno Fernandes starting the game, the ball filtered its way back to the Newcastle penalty area. A faintly awkward defensive header was placed slightly behind the advancing Loris Karius, just far enough so that for a split second it seemed as though there would be some sort of monumental goalkeeping f**k up, the sort which a week of fervent narrative-baiting build-up had demanded.
It offered Karius the chance to get involved and perhaps settle nerves which seemed evident during a deeply unconvincing warm-up, with the German spilling a couple of routine shots before kick-off. But even more importantly, it gave every commentating team on duty at Wembley the opportunity to stress the importance of getting an early feel of the ball and explain how it will have been nice to get that one out of the way.
5) A minute later, Man Utd showed their hand. Shaw found Wout Weghorst deep on the inside left and the Dutchman’s first-time pass played Rashford in behind Kieran Trippier. With space to run into the England international instead went in search of Antony or Fernandes, his fellow attacking options through the middle, with an early delivery which Sven Botman poked out for a corner.
That was the first hint of Man Utd’s approach: Weghorst dropping deep to open up room for Rashford to exploit. The second came immediately after as Weghorst, Casemiro and Raphael Varane surrounded Karius at the corner. It was an understandable tactic and a reminder that for all the millions of pounds of investment a club makes and the hundreds of experts they employ, the sport really can sometimes just be boiled down to ‘let’s try and rattle this obvious target and see what happens’.
6) Not that Newcastle’s strategy was any less transparent. The Magpies started quickly, intent on taking advantage of any residual fatigue felt by Man Utd after their victory over Barcelona in midweek. Miguel Almiron and Allan Saint-Maximin provided ideal and willing out-balls to test the sharpness of minds and hamstrings, running at defenders with malicious and unharnessed intent.
Saint-Maximin was in a particularly ominous mood. Having laid on a chance of sorts for Bruno Guimaraes, the Frenchman forced a booking for Diogo Dalot after being chucked down on the halfway line; the Portuguese right-back’s afternoon would rarely improve from there. Shortly after the half-hour mark he bought what Saint-Maximin effortlessly sold as the Newcastle forward collected a driven Sean Longstaff cross, chopped his way past the defender and forced a decent save from De Gea.
It became increasingly evident early on that if Newcastle were going to produce a trophy-worthy moment, Saint-Maximin would be central to it. And if Man Utd hoped to prevail then stopping him would rob the opposition of practically all their hope.
7) As is so often the case, Newcastle let their guard down in throwing a sizeable punch. A minute after Saint-Maximin’s chance seemed to have Man Utd on the ropes, they bounced back with an opener: Casemiro’s wonderful header from a sumptuous Shaw dead ball.
It was a weirdly high defensive line for Newcastle to deploy, giving Shaw a wealth of space to cross into. But the first mistake was committed by Guimaraes, who ploughed into Rashford to concede the free-kick despite Trippier holding his international teammate up well in a secure position on the right wing.
Guimaraes was only ever going to be drafted straight into the starting line-up upon his return from suspension, not least for such an important game. And Newcastle have struggled without him. But after an excellent first 20 minutes he faded, was in one instance tackled twice in the same minute when shirking passing options to try and drive forward himself, then made the foolish error from which his team never recovered. The Brazilian will be part of whatever success Newcastle come to experience, but he also played a role in the first true failure of this regime.
8) It took just six minutes for Man Utd to double their lead. It was that combination between Weghorst and Rashford which unlocked Newcastle after a spirited game of head tennis, with the former sliding the latter in behind to put an effort past Karius, aided considerably by a Botman deflection.
There was a rush to apportion blame – or rather to decide whether Karius was due any. Perhaps he could have reacted quicker and trying to push the shot over the bar instead of simply keeping it out as a priority might have been a mistake born of a lack of match sharpness. But tracing the goal back to its origin emphasised this Newcastle side’s true weakness: long kicks from goalkeepers. They couldn’t get a handle on possession from the point De Gea launched it towards Weghorst and Nick Pope would have been there to render all the Karius fun moot if he hadn’t reacted so positively absurdly to Alisson’s long Mo Salah pass a week ago.
9) Karius really did have a very good game. A couple of tame efforts from Weghorst and Antony helped him play his way in but Weghorst, Rashford and Fernandes were all kept out with great saves which at least in theory kept Newcastle in the game.
Considering the focus and pressure placed on him ahead of this, his debut for the club in a major cup final – their first in 24 years – and his first appearance for any team in 728 days, Karius gave a fine account of himself. The mental fortitude required to do so was startling.
10) Shortly before half-time, Joelinton beat Dalot and advanced into the area as Newcastle endeavoured to halve the deficit. The Brazilian might have been successful had his compatriot not intervened. Casemiro stepped in front of the midfielder and chauffeured the ball out of play for a goal kick, rising from the floor to his knees with a roar towards the stands, before celebrating with Dalot, Raphael Varane and the exceptional Lisandro Martinez.
Casemiro drew the desired reaction from supporters and players alike. It was a brief moment but one which underlined how this particular 2-0 lead was the least dangerous for those in the ascendancy. Casemiro was never going to be breached once, never mind twice, and when Joelinton received a booking a few minutes later for dragging the Man Utd midfielder down by his collar near the halfway line, the humbling was complete. He has been a sensational, needle-shifting signing.
11) Hidden in the detail was Dalot, beaten again by an opponent on the run. Saint-Maximin had the better of him for most of their encounter and Ten Hag was justified in removing the booked right-back at half-time.
Dalot might not have been thrilled to see his replacement adapt so brilliantly. Aaron Wan-Bissaka was phenomenal in the second half, shutting down the previously imperious Saint-Maximin with apparent ease. For all his foibles and faults, there is no better one-on-one defender in the country; Wan-Bissaka made seven tackles in 45 minutes when no other player for either side managed more than five all game.
12) Ten Hag’s in-game management and substitutions were again impeccable. Wan-Bissaka thrived in that defensive environment, Marcel Sabitzer set up Rashford with a counter-pressing tackle and pass and Scott McTominay helped see the game out. Jadon Sancho and Harry Maguire were allowed to stretch their legs in the final 10 minutes with victory secured.
The Dutchman has made 17 substitutions at half-time this season. No team has scored more goals (19) through substitutes this season. There aren’t many who can rival Ten Hag for his reading of a game.
13) By contrast, only Chris Wood (v Southampton on November 6) and Alexander Isak (v Fulham on January 15) have scored from the bench for Newcastle this season. Once their initial game plan was proven to be insufficient, there was no real scope for a response beyond bringing on club-record signing Isak and changing formation to a 4-4-2 which seemed to suit neither him nor Callum Wilson.
Jacob Murphy, Joe Willock, Elliott Anderson and Matt Ritchie rounded off the changes Howe was able to make as Newcastle’s squad depth collapsed under significant scrutiny. They have a decent core of starters but scratch at the surface and almost nothing lies beneath. No member of that front three should regularly be in line-ups for games of any real consequence with the budget at this club’s disposal.
14) Longstaff was taken off for Isak at half-time. Nothing else to note, it’s just still so weird that he was being linked with £50m Man Utd moves a few years ago. That is all.
15) Dan Burn booting a pitchside mic before taking a throw-in was fun – and the precise action he wished he could have taken when Antony started dancing around him towards the touchline at 2-0 up.
“Do you find something comical about my appearance when I’m defending my left flank?” Burn presumably asked Antony, who replied in the affirmative while twisting and turning the knife with his feet. The Man Utd forward had a pretty substandard match but that made up for it.
16) Perception is reality with the League Cup more than any other competition. One team’s Mickey Mouse distraction is another’s proof of hunger and drive. It can be disregarded as easily as it is held as a springboard for the future. It is exactly as essential as you make it.
“This trophy means something,” Ten Hag said after the game. “That is the feeling I get. We have won something, we have to celebrate that. But after that, you have to keep going. This cup can be the inspiration to give even more. Don’t be satisfied.”
It is incredibly funny that Tottenham rejected this man. Even in the afterglow of the final, when the trophy shines the brightest, Ten Hag speaks and acts like the sensible adult Man Utd have needed in charge for years.
And this League Cup quite crucially cuts one inevitable and laborious criticism off within Ten Hag’s first few months. There will be no derisive comments about an inability to win trophies, nor tiresome debates about which ones matter. And for those who doubt whether or not that is important, just consider how his predecessor and the manager most felt was a better fit at Old Trafford tied themselves in knots on that very issue.
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