football

Manchester United reporter notebook: FA Cup final result won't sway decision on Erik ten Hag's future

Roughly 11 miles separate Manchester United's Carrington base from the Etihad Campus, but the conversation and atmosphere in those two locations couldn't be further apart heading into Saturday's FA Cup final.

Where Manchester City's players were chest out at the prospect of making more history by securing the 'Double Double,' Erik ten Hag was made to answer what his message would be to those who believe the trip to Wembley will be his last undertaking as United manager.

The Premier League champions head into the showdown with zero distractions and unflinching certainty about their purpose. Their opponents, meanwhile, do not know whether their manager on Saturday will remain so on Sunday, or whether one of the varying spread of Mauricio Pochettino, Kieran McKenna, Thomas Tuchel or Thomas Frank will be their new boss.

That list, I'm told, is incomplete and United have been sparked into fine-tuning succession plans due to the situation at Chelsea, who are now in the market for many of the same options.

Ten Hag's future has been made to feel bigger than the final itself, largely because the club have allowed speculation to swell for months.

United insist no decision has been made yet, and the FA Cup showpiece won't sway their thinking after conducting a comprehensive review - led by Sir Dave Brailsford and then Jason Wilcox - into Ten Hag's two seasons in charge.

You do not have to excel in reading between the lines to know that if INEOS were concrete in wanting to keep him, that would have been communicated already - at least even privately to the man himself.

Instead, Ten Hag has been delivering messages via his media commitments. His press conference to preview Saturday's shot at silverware was an opportunity to remind the audience of the positives of his project, chiefly: one trophy and two more finals in two seasons.

That followed pleas for common sense and the assertion that anyone who truly knows football will recognise why United have been struggling given their injury crisis.

Ten Hag has been publicly defiant. When asked if the final home game of the season was his goodbye to Old Trafford, he responded, "that's not how I feel it and see it." He took the mic after that game, a victory over Newcastle, to promise fans the team would give everything to win the FA Cup. Last month, he didn't "have any doubts" he was continuing in the post.

Ten Hag has repeatedly stated he does not need assurances from INEOS. He has stood tall, he has seemed confident.

Privately, it has been taxing. Several staff feel the burden of having to discuss his future every few days has taken up unnecessary energy.

Some have noted his tone change this week, a little more emotion and reflection colouring his words.

Ten Hag doesn't know whether he'll be allowed to continue his project, and there is a sense that regardless of what happens at Wembley, the INEOS-shaped operation structure at United already have their next steps in mind.

Questions over why there hasn't been any public direction from the hierarchy can be explained by the complications over finances - the cost of firing and hiring - not having certainty in a replacement yet, and the ongoing conflict with Newcastle over sporting director-in-waiting Dan Ashworth.

There is an acknowledgement that whatever the club do, they need supporter buy-in.

Plenty of analysis has been done in these pages on Ten Hag's time at the United helm. It is worth remembering, as you reach your conclusions, that he had the opportunity amid the uncertainty to secure his future with a move to Bayern Munich at the end of the season.

Had he decided to meet with them and directly engage about the job, sources in Germany say it would have been his. Instead, through his representatives, Ten Hag made it clear his focus was on finishing the campaign strongly with United and planning for the FA Cup final. Bayern couldn't and wouldn't wait.

However his story ends with United, as an antithesis to many that have been involved in the past decade, Ten Hag can't be accused of not caring or trying enough.

Analysis from Sky Sports' Ben Grounds:

Following one of the club's worst league seasons in a generation it could be that the writing is already on the wall for Ten Hag after two years in the job, as new minority owners INEOS consider how best to take the club forward.

The United manager has overseen the club's lowest Premier League finish as well as 14 league defeats and a first-ever negative goal difference, while defeat at Wembley will leave them facing just a second season since 1989/90 without European football.

Four victories in the final 13 games of the Premier League season, a run that included a calamitous 4-0 humbling by Crystal Palace early in May, was an indicator that progress under their Dutch coach has stalled, while even the manner in which they reached Saturday's final - throwing away a 3-0 semi-final lead against Championship side Coventry and requiring penalties to edge through - drew harsh criticism.

In the latest Merson Says, Paul Merson says that Man Utd would need "the game of their lives" to lift the FA Cup and explains why Erik ten Hag will already know his future...

"I can't see anything but a Man City win in the FA Cup final. They're head and shoulders above Man Utd.

"People will say Wigan beat Man City in the FA Cup, but this side's a lot different. This is a one-off game, it depends how Man Utd play.

"If you turn up and play 10 behind the ball, and try to counter-attack, then get beaten 1-0 or 2-0, don't have a shot like we did at Aston Villa vs Chelsea [in 2000], you come away and think, why didn't we have a go? The manager set us up to make sure we didn't get beaten.

"Man Utd have got to go and have a go. You do get your chances against Man City if you pick the right pass - don't get me wrong, you get opened up a lot too - but you do get your chances.

"They need their players to really have the games of their lives to win this football match."

Read Merson's column in full here.