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How Man City made Man Utd look so small, says Ten Hag

Manchester United looked small at Wembley on Saturday. As a team. A club. For the occasion. Manchester United looked tiny. And the sad thing is, as Erik ten Hag knows, the cause was largely self-inflicted…

United were nothing more than the support act in this FA Cup final. Brighton. Fulham. Swap them in. Swap them out. It wouldn’t have mattered. This was Manchester City’s moment. And deservedly so. The 2-1 scoreline belies how dominant City were on the day. From kickoff -literally – there was only ever going to be one winner in this contest. And that’s both on and off the pitch.

In the aftermath, we’ll all pull the team apart… David de Gea was slow to react for Ilkay Gundogan’s second goal. Christian Eriksen was twice caught napping by the German. And on the big occasion, Marcus Rashford was again found wanting…

But this goes beyond personalities and personnel. This goes right up to the board. Indeed, beyond even that lot. This is about the status of Manchester United and how they behave at this level.

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As we say, City made them look small on Saturday. City were the football club. The football team. They went into the game with a swagger. An aura. A belief that they belonged there. And it is a confidence that has been driven from the top down. Manchester City is a club setup for one purpose: to win football matches. That’s it. In today’s game, it sounds simple. We know. But sometimes the simplest things – at least for some – are the most difficult to achieve.

For the Treble-elect, everything is pored into producing the best football team possible. There are no compromises. There are no debt repayments. No merchandising failures. It’s a football club for football people. End of.

Ten Hag, to his credit, thought he was getting the same at United. And to be fair, the culture is shifting. But debris from the approach before the Dutchman’s arrival still remains. Something he highlighted going into Saturday.

It was a soundbite that deserved more coverage. Ten Hag calling out the owners. The chief exec. Even his ally John Murtough, the club’s technical director. The reality the manager is having to work in doesn’t chime with the perception he had before his appointment. And it’s something that’s left him, with no exaggeration, exasperated.

Quizzed about United’s summer market strategy and whether planning was underway, Ten Hag didn’t couch his words: “The club knows that a position in the top four and the fight for trophies in this tough league requires investment in new players. If you don’t do that, you end up stagnating because other teams are investing.

“We saw it in the winter transfer window. All the clubs around us invested. We didn’t, but we managed anyway, and that’s why I’m very happy and proud of my players.”

As we stated here, before Christmas there was belief amongst Ten Hag and his staff: the title was on. Momentum was with the team. Rashford was flying. Casemiro outstanding. And the back four rock solid. A serious addition or two in the winter market and there was a real belief that the Premier League could be won.

At City, in similar circumstances, they would’ve seen the opportunity – and acted. Football men: Txiki Begiristain, Ferran Soriano and Khaldoon al-Mubarak would not have been caught sitting on their hands. The budget would’ve been drawn up. The shopping list organised. And Pep Guardiola would’ve been delivered what he needed to get the sole purpose of his – winning football games – done.

In contrast, United froze. Or worse, as Ten Hag hinted last week, they didn’t bother. The belief wasn’t there. In this team. In this club. The chance of pulling off the improbable. The magical. Everything this club once epitomised. It was dismissed for the ledger. The bottom line. And as Ten Hag stated, the manager was forced to make-do with the loans of Wout Weghorst and Marcel Sabitzer…

Ten Hag’s pre-Wembley comments almost echo the words of Louis van Gaal last year when reflecting on his time in charge. Like his countryman, Van Gaal took the job believing he was joining the biggest club in the world. He wanted Neymar, Robert Lewandowski and Sergio Ramos. “This was Manchester United”, LVG declared when recalling his wishlist: the biggest and the best players, for the biggest and the best club.

But the reality back then was very different. Just as it is today. Though, as we say, it is shifting. Casemiro. Rapha Varane. The United name can still attract the best. Indeed, it’s not only the manager who is expecting better.

“When world-class players come in, players with quality, it is always welcome,” said Casemiro, again, just last week. “…the more top players you have, the better, because we know that with many quality players there will be tougher competition for places and that means we will get better.”

The demands for better standards. The mantra of ‘nearly enough not being good enough’. Ten Hag’s approach has been celebrated – both outside and within the club. But it shouldn’t begin and end with the players.

Saturday at Wembley, just as this season, could’ve been so much more for Manchester United. But nothing will change until they start acting like a proper football club. Or better yet, until they start acting like Manchster City.

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