·3 June 2023
·3 June 2023
1) A more in-depth dissection of the 2023 FA Cup final might follow, but sometimes there need be no more than a cursory glance at the basic facts to tell the story of a game.
The Manchester City winning machine had more gears to click through and could rely on a back-up goalkeeper who has been diligently identified, scouted and coached to fit in without fault. They spent more than £200m on the three players they substituted, replaced by a phenomenal academy talent and two defenders who cost upwards of £40m each.
Man Utd were running on empty, their best player seemingly carrying an injury by the end but so important and unparalleled that he could not be taken off. The players they brought on when chasing an equaliser in a final were an excellent youth prospect, a loanee and an average defensive midfielder, coming on for a lucrative free agent and two players signed for over £100m combined. Their goalkeeper for well over the last decade was at least partially at fault for both goals.
It is to Erik ten Hag’s credit that his side had a chance until the very end of this final, because the laughable mismatch in squad composition between these two opponents was gradually exposed throughout. There was still enough to suggest that gap could be bridged with time, patience and investment, but Manchester City really are streets ahead of the rest and should soon have an almost uniquely brilliant tangible achievement to prove it.
2) While unable to properly defend the honour of their greatest feat, Man Utd did push Manchester City far closer than most expected. Even after going behind they remained awkwardly relevant in the game and were even the better side for a quarter of an hour or so after a fortuitous equaliser. Their last chance at preventing the unthinkable has passed but there was no shame in this Man Utd performance.
It is, however, very funny that a point has now been definitively reached whereby Manchester City’s campaign stands at a crossroads to be determined by a single game: either they beat Inter Milan in the Champions League final to mark this out as one of the greatest club seasons in football history; they lose and become the ultimate bottlers; or they win and everyone just puts an asterisk next to it anyway while putting their fingers in their ears while screaming “115 charges”. There is no in between, no grey area or room for nuance in the modern world. They are on the precipice of glory but equally disaster or shrug-inducing supremacy. They can do something only one team has before, or they can match 2009/10 Chelsea. It is glorious.
3) The opening goal, when it finally did come, was completely against the run of play. Manchester City had spent over a third of the game camped inside their own half, with Stefan Ortega compelled to relieve the pressure by kicking long. Erling Haaland beat Casemiro in the air, Victor Lindelof let the ball bounce and then headed it against Kevin de Bruyne, and Ilkay Gundogan struck a sumptuous volley past the rooted David de Gea.
It was a crucial opener, not due to some vague, meaningless nonsense about it coming in an FA Cup final, but because it finally settled the BBC v ITV debate once and for all. The former was already prepared for any eventuality, while the latter didn’t even have the top left-hand corner graphic up for the scoreline and clock by the time Gundogan was celebrating; Sam Matterface was still going through the team news.
The BBC did undermine some of their advantage by handing Jermaine Jenas a live microphone, but no broadcaster’s matchday coverage is perfect.
4) The finish itself was perhaps the archetypal example of a goal which a former player turned pundit most relishes analysing. The earnest expertise with which Alan Shearer told the viewing public at half-time it was “such a difficult skill” to master was palpable.
It was a stunning strike from a quite phenomenal player Manchester City must do their utmost to keep. And just to underline that point, Gundogan did it again deep – five minutes – into the second half, albeit with slightly less flawless technique but similarly resounding results.
A pair of volleys with the outside of either foot from outside the area to win a major final confirmed him as one of the game’s great clutch players. But Manchester City should be ashamed that they didn’t spent the rest of the match trying to set Gundogan up to score a header from outside the area for the ultimate perfect hat-trick. Cowards.
5) As has become customary upon the concession of a Man Utd goal, questions were immediately asked of De Gea. And the necessary answers still do not seem to be forthcoming.
The Spaniard could perhaps be excused for his complete lack of reaction to the first goal – although sudden as it was, the minimum expectation of an elite athlete probably involves some degree of anticipation and preparation. De Gea was painfully slow in reading the situation and even more sedate in reacting, still moving backwards and yet to set himself as Gundogan struck.
Gundogan’s second goal bounced twice before De Gea even budged. Long before having to mention his usual limitations in terms of distribution, Man Utd’s keeper did as much to erode a solid gameplan as anyone; refusing to upgrade him becomes less of a viable option with each game.
6) Those connected to Watford must have watched the opening exchanges with a knowing nod and a few flashbacks. They did at least hold out until the 26th minute of the 2019 FA Cup final but Manchester City eventually strolled to a 6-0 victory. That looked perfectly feasible as Rodri headed a De Bruyne free-kick into the side-netting before the remaining stragglers had taken their Wembley seats.
John Stones striding forward to take a few touches in the Man Utd penalty area in the first five minutes summed the situation up; grazing his head on the top of the crossbar when trying to make a stoppage-time clearance off the line to preserve victory encapsulated a sublime performance which graced every part of the pitch.
The apparent ease with which he has taken to this hybrid role is breathtaking. Few with functioning eyes have ever doubted his ability but the intelligence of Stones to adapt to those demands so seamlessly has been remarkable. The moment he casually dropped a shoulder, turned and strolled clear of a press early in the second half when boxed in by four opponents was so effortlessly brilliant that a GIF of it could make NFTs a thing again.
7) Man Utd actually responded admirably to that early torrent when ordinarily they would have been collectively swept away. They became more focused when pressing and eventually settled into the rhythm of the game, although the moves they constructed in the Manchester City half were noticeably unthreatening.
The same could be said for their breakthrough. Bruno Fernandes clipped a ball out to the right for Aaron Wan-Bissaka but it was imperfect, too far in front of the defender to control comfortably. So he attempted a header back into the area with precious little support, and the ball grazed the fingertip of Jack Grealish en route to Ortega’s inviting arms.
Manchester City played the ball around the back for a minute or so before the referee was advised to watch a replay and ultimately award a penalty. Whether it was handball or not felt immaterial at this point: whatever the alleged crime, that punishment feels ludicrously outdated. Awarding an 80% scoring chance because the ball touches a player’s finger in a completely innocuous part of the box is illogical. That bar is far too low and needs addressing. An indirect free-kick would be both far more fair and still the most exciting of all the methods of restarting a football match.
8) This might as well be the preamble to the legally obliged referee chat. The Casemiro tackle on Manuel Akanji was poor but probably not a red card and thus could not be reviewed; Fred stepping across De Bruyne was definitely a penalty; the first yellow card, for Aaron Wan-Bissaka barely touching Grealish with a sliding tackle towards the end of the first half, was weird.
May Paul Tierney travel safely this evening, save for the daily voicemail left by an enraged Jurgen Klopp.
9) Fernandes did indeed dispatch the penalty to spark, if not a period of dominance, a spell of positivity. Manchester City were ever so slightly less sure of themselves and Man Utd were suddenly imbued with a belief and arrogance that comes with parity suddenly being restored in a game that looked lost even at 1-0.
There was a palpable energy shift. Manchester City did not have another shot for the rest of the half, while Man Utd had three. Marcus Rashford was stretching the defence with his runs, while Haaland had more touches in his own half – and as many touches in his own area – as he did in Man Utd’s.
But this Manchester City is more resilient than any other Pep Guardiola has built. It can recover from those stumbles and ride out the waves far better than previous iterations which perhaps caught the eye more but were so susceptible to collapse. Perhaps it was no coincidence that Manchester City committed a quarter of their total fouls in the 17 minutes between conceding and half-time. They were all in the Man Utd half and prevented potential counter-attacks developing. The game management of Rodri and Bernardo Silva was particularly critical when it needed to be.
10) The contrast between that and the foul committed by Fred four minutes into the second half was stark. It was the third of six the Brazilian would be punished for, easily the most costly and arguably the most needless. With De Bruyne advancing down the right flank, Fred was lured in and clipped the Belgian to give away a free-kick deep in enemy territory.
Man Utd had already struggled with De Bruyne’s set-piece delivery and this was no different: Gundogan was left unmarked on the edge of the area to score as players in red – and De Gea’s unsullied yellow shirt – threw their arms up in impotent, blame-seeking fury.
As much as this was a final settled on technique, ability and skill, Manchester City had a nous that Man Utd lacked at crucial times.
11) Ten Hag blinked first with the substitutions.
Noting that Man Utd’s counter-attacks were often limited to one player running through with two or three opponents as their only company, Alejandro Garnacho was introduced for Christian Eriksen.
In half an hour against defenders finally unseated from their positions of relative comfort, Garnacho showed enough enthusiasm, fearlessness, fight and explosiveness to suggest his 11 starts this season should be at least tripled next campaign. That one chance he curled just past the post after a give-and-go with Fernandes was as close as Man Utd came to equalising. He was genuinely their best player.
12) That speed and efficiency from an 18-year-old would have evoked more excitement from supporters than anything the pedestrian and perennially bypassed Eriksen managed, while Garnacho looks infinitely better than Jadon Sancho in this team.
Sancho is obviously a brilliant player – and there are issues at hand far more important than football here – but he just does not seem to suit Man Utd’s style of play in any way. He had no shots, no key passes and no dribbles and Manchester City had no problem what soever containing him. A summer move would be best for all parties but this club needs at least one sunk-cost fallacy to prolong at all times.
13) Fair play to Ortega for continuing the proud tradition of Manchester City goalkeepers being booked for time-wasting without warning, making that late save at the feet of Raphael Varane after McTominay’s touch, and successfully completing nine of an attempted 13 long passes in comparison to De Gea’s eight from 26.
He is, without a doubt, better than Zack Steffen. And very possibly De Gea.
14) The only way this latest Manchester City trophy would have been improved upon is if Haaland had made it 3-1 with around 10 minutes left. The Norwegian had evaded the attention of Casemiro on the edge of the area, only to be stopped by Varane. But the centre-half’s attempted clearance rebounded off Haaland and veered annoyingly wide.
From the brink of possible history, Haaland has bottled his way to a single goal in his last seven games. It does introduce the prospect of Guardiola dropping him for the Champions League final. But the striker sh*thoused his way back into the starting line-up with his second greatest party trick: running down the clock in the corner. There has to be some sort of bonus clause in his contract for that.
15) No player made more tackles than Rodri, who only misplaced four passes all game and won possession at least seven more times than anyone else. He remains the glue in this ridiculous team, the cog without which it would not function nearly as well. And he also got booked in the 90th minute for a tactical handball on the halfway line, such is his control of the dark arts. Kalvin Phillips doesn’t have it in him.
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