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How important is FA Cup final for Ten Hag’s future?

United go into the FA Cup final with City knowing defeat will mean no European football next season for only the second time since 1981-82, excluding the five-year period when all English clubs were banned.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe has had a positive start as Manchester United co-owner.

He has detailed his grand plan for a new stadium and said he wants to knock Manchester City off their perch.

He met fans groups in person and is appointing respected industry figures to key jobs.

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The goodwill allowed him to make unpopular decisions within the club, including axing the traditional staff trips to cup finals, and delivering some harsh words to employees without the hysteria that would have accompanied the same moves if they had been made by the Glazer family.

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But, as one fan representative observed in private a couple of months ago, “this is the easy bit, it’s when he has to do something that the real judgement will come”.

That moment is approaching.

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United go into the FA Cup final with City knowing defeat will mean no European football next season for only the second time since 1981-82, excluding the five-year period when all English clubs were banned.

They finished eighth in the Premier League, one place below the David Moyes season of 2013-14, and their lowest since 1989-90.

That season was memorable for the FA Cup win that propelled United to two decades of dominance under Sir Alex Ferguson but, before that, the famous ‘Ta-ra Fergie’ banner during a home defeat by Crystal Palace in December that told the Scot it was time to go.

It was a different era, there were hardly any mobile phones let alone social media. But the pressure was huge. United’s board stood firm.

Wind forward 25 years and now it is Ratcliffe, backed by Ineos’ United board appointments Sir Dave Brailsford and Jean-Claude Blanc, plus technical director Jason Wilcox, who must decide Ten Hag’s future.

It is a massive call and there are competing arguments. But it is one Ratcliffe and co must get right if United are to get themselves on the path back to becoming challengers.

A couple of months ago, the feeling was veering strongly towards keeping faith with Ten Hag.

Much of Brailsford’s early work since Ratcliffe’s co-ownership was announced on Christmas Eve has centred on putting the right structures in place at the club, including the appointment of Wilcox and football director Dan Ashworth, which is yet to be confirmed amid a compensation stand-off with Newcastle.

No manager, it was felt, could deliver positive results on a consistent basis without the right support mechanisms in place.

Ten Hag, first at Ajax, then in his first season at United, had proved himself to be a capable manager and there was still a chance of Champions League qualification, heightened by what was seen as a likelihood of English clubs getting one of the two extra places Uefa are handing out next season.

Wembley papering over United cracks?

That all feels like a very long time ago.

United ended their league campaign with successive victories against Newcastle and Brighton. It was the first time they had done that since winning four in a row in February.

In between, they won two league games, at home to Everton – thanks to two early penalties – and Sheffield United – when they trailed twice. Largely, the headlines have been negative.

Winning positions in injury time at Brentford and Chelsea yielded a single point, they were outplayed at Bournemouth but drew and failed to beat Burnley at Old Trafford.

They did lead 3-0 with 20 minutes left in their FA Cup semi-final with Championship side Coventry but ended up needing a very tight video assistant referee decision to go their way in the last minute of extra time to avoid a humiliating defeat after tossing away their advantage.

Ten Hag said the 4-0 league defeat at Crystal Palace was “unacceptable”.

Their recent victories do at least offer hope of victory at Wembley but some argue that would just paper over some significant cracks.

The key question Ratcliffe must answer is ‘why?’.

Listen to Ten Hag, who has become increasingly firm on this as the weeks have gone by, and he will blame the weight of injuries, the like of which he has never encountered before.

Brazilian midfielder Casemiro has played in seven consecutive games at centre-half as United had five central defenders, including youngster Willy Kambwala, ruled out at various times.

At left-back, Tyrrell Malacia has missed the entire season. Luke Shaw has played 15 times but not since the win at Luton on 18 February.

Further forward, the last of Anthony Martial’s 19 appearances came on 9 December. Mason Mount has played 19 times since his £55m summer move from Chelsea but started only five times in the Premier League and has missed the past three games.

This has wrecked Ten Hag’s plans, negating one of the major reasons for paying Inter Milan £47.2m for goalkeeper Andre Onana because there is not enough pace and mobility ahead of him to use his feet to maximum effect.

“No team could cope with this amount of injuries,” Ten Hag said recently.
Yet there is a counter-argument Ten Hag could have seen this coming.

Shaw, Mount, Varane, Lindelof, Martial and Evans all have patchy injury records. Could they be relied on to provide support this season?

Brazilian wide-man Antony is among those who have stayed fit.

Ten Hag pushed to sign the 24-year-old in September 2022. He was a player known to the Dutchman from his time at Ajax.

BBC Sport has previously been told Antony was put forward as a potential target during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s time in charge. He wasn’t dismissed as an option but only at a cost of around £30m.

United eventually paid £84.5m, making Antony the second most expensive player in their history.

In 54 Premier League appearances, he has scored five goals and been credited with three assists. Against Arsenal, he was left on the bench in preference to Amad Diallo, who United paid £19m for in 2021 and had previously started two top-flight games. Antony was an unused substitute against Newcastle and Brighton.

Ten Hag did want Harry Kane in attack but finances would not allow and instead United went for Danish youngster Rasmus Hojlund at £72m from Atalanta.

Hojlund is viewed as a player for the future but with Martial sidelined so frequently has had to shoulder the burden of spearheading United’s attack.

Goals against Newcastle and Brighton mean he finished as United’s joint-top Premier League goalscorer, with skipper Bruno Fernandes, on 10. But that underlines Marcus Rashford’s nosedive in form, scoring just eight goals this season, compared to 30 in 2022-23.

There have been plusses under Ten Hag.

Kobbie Mainoo’s emergence and Alejandro Garnacho’s continuing development are notable. But both have shown signs of tiredness at times and in an ideal world would presumably have been rested at some stage.

That hasn’t been possible and now they, and United, look forward to a second consecutive FA Cup final meeting with City, which promises glorious victory or another failure.

Ten Hag will be in charge at Wembley. But then a decision will have to be made on what happens next.

Alternative names have been suggested in the form of Thomas Tuchel, Gareth Southgate, Mauricio Pochettino, Kieran McKenna and others. But there has been no clear sign of a decision being made either way.

Ten Hag has said he is planning for next season. Ratcliffe must decide whether those plans become reality.

It has been a smooth ride for the lifelong United supporter as owner so far. The next bit doesn’t look like being quite so easy to navigate.


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