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Ken Early: Manchester United face a choice over Erik ten Hag, but not a difficult one

The awkward questions being thrown at the Dutch manager after the FA Cup final actually managed to unite the club’s fans behind him

In his autobiography, Alex Ferguson reveals that on the morning of the famous Mark Robins third-round tie against Nottingham Forest in January 1990, he bet on Manchester United to win the FA Cup. He got odds of 16/1.

Today’s game is saturated with gambling advertising that would have been illegal in 1990, yet a manager who did what Ferguson did would risk a lengthy ban from the sport. As a retired club grandee, Ferguson is presumably not subject to the rules against football insiders betting on football, and the 9/1 available on exchanges for United to beat Manchester City in Saturday’s FA Cup final would surely have caught his eye.

It’s remarkable that United were rated not much less likely to win a one-off final that they had already qualified for than the bookies had rated them to win the competition at its outset back in 1990.

In the end United beat City in the same way they’ve beaten them fairly regularly in the Guardiola era: defend deep, attack fast. The formula, whether employed by José Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Erik ten Hag, has led to eight United victories in eight Guardiola seasons.

United aren’t the only ones who try to beat City this way, but unlike most of those other teams, they have attackers of the quality of Bruno Fernandes. A player like Bruno at the hub of your attack means you’ll always have at least a puncher’s chance. The disguised pass with which he wrong-footed City’s defence for Kobbie Mainoo’s winner was an instant Wembley classic, reminiscent of Teddy Sheringham’s pass to Alan Shearer for his second goal against the Netherlands in Euro 1996.

Ten Hag shook the trophy towards the celebrating United fans. What a transformation from the scene at Old Trafford 10 days earlier, when he had stood on the pitch to address the crowd after United’s last home game of the season. As he began to speak, sections of the crowd responded with boos. They were answered by cheers from the more conscientiously loyal fans who plainly felt that booing your own manager is in poor taste. The disunity was clear.

Then on Friday came a report in the Guardian – followed by most of Saturday’s sports press – that United had decided to sack their manager no matter what happened in the Cup final.

What sounded like bad news for Ten Hag was actually the best thing that could have happened to him. Who would not sympathise with a manager in such a situation? Where before there had been doubt and division, now the United fans rallied around their manager and against the lying media.

Ten Hag’s many interviews after the game were dominated by questions about his future, which angered many fans. The manager took a defiant tone, repeating a line that if United didn’t want him, he would simply go and win trophies somewhere else. Fans in the YouTube comments under the video of his press conference raged against the “shameful” behaviour of the reporters: “disgusting”, “disgrace”, “leeches”, “snakes”, “literally demons in human form”, etc.

When a reporter suggested that “eighth, with a negative goal difference, is nowhere near where you need to be?” Ten Hag replied: “Sorry to say this, but you don’t have any knowledge about football, and about managing a football team.”

This thrilled the fans who love to see their manager treating the media with contempt. One of the highlights of Louis van Gaal’s spell in charge was the time he called a reporter “fat man”. Ferguson’s “Juan Veron is a great player, youse are all f***ing idiots” tirade is legendary. You really cannot go hard enough on these weasels. All future United managers should take note.

Earlier in the week Ten Hag had given an interview to the Dutch magazine Voetbal International in which he complained about “all this negativity from so-called experts who don’t have the capability to analyse something with facts, but who prefer to attack people to make themselves look better”.

But look at the facts. Eighth is Manchester United’s worst-ever finish in the Premier League. This has been their worst-ever Premier League season for goals conceded, and their worst since 1970/71 for goals conceded per game. It was not quite their lowest-scoring Premier League season, only their third-lowest, but that is quite a feat given this has been the highest-scoring top-division season for 60 years. The struggle at both ends of the pitch added up to 14 defeats in the league, which again is their worst performance in the Premier League era.

The BBC’s build-up to the final included the statistic that United this season conceded an average of 17.6 opposition shots per game – ranking them 95th out of 96 teams in the top five European leagues. Only Sheffield United were worse.

Ten Hag’s universal excuse: injuries. “When you don’t have the players available, then you can’t perform. It’s as simple as that.” Just as well Ferguson didn’t take that attitude against Nottingham Forest in 1990, when, as he recalls, “half our first-choice team missed the game because of injury. Webb, Robson, Ince, Donaghy, Wallace and Sharpe were all sitting in the stands and so was the useful full-back, Colin Gibson ...” Ten Hag, unlike Ferguson, is better at finding excuses than solutions.

Besides, the injury alibi may not be as strong as he thinks. If success in football is simply a question of your best players being fit and available, then what is the manager actually adding? Lisandro Martinez was sorely missed this season, but United will expect to count on him next season, with or without Erik ten Hag.

There was one high-profile United voice not joining in the general acclaim for Ten Hag. Jim Ratcliffe’s statement of congratulations to the team did not mention the manager by name. United had refused to deny the reports of Ten Hag’s imminent departure.

Instead, the manager’s position is now “under review”. The choice for Ratcliffe looks like this. Either he risks looking like the bad guy by sacking a coach who has just enjoyed his finest hour. Or he keeps faith with the guy who has led the most expensive squad in world football to one of their worst seasons in decades. Is it really even that difficult a choice?

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