“On another day we could’ve won this game.”
If you had a penny every time you heard a manager of a losing side used that line… but on this occasion we can cut Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag some slack.
The Red Devils came out second best in the FA Cup final as Manchester City added yet another trophy to their rapidly growing collection.
It’s a result that may worry those who value the spirit of competition – five Premier League titles in six seasons and the treble now a very real possibility this term means Pep Guardiola’s juggernaut could be establishing a monopoly in England.
The trophy stats don’t paint a full picture, though. Liverpool pushed them all the way in two highly competitive title races while for some time it looked like Arsenal were going to become English champions this season.
Arsenal’s late collapse and bang average performances in their cup competitions suggest they’re still some way off really competing against City.
As for Liverpool, who were once hilariously labelled as a ‘pain in the a***’ by Guardiola, failure to qualify for next term’s Champions League suggests they will not be dining at the same table as the Etihad outfit for the foreseeable.
Enter Man United, who despite their Wembley heartache can celebrate a season of great progress having won their first major trophy in six years in the Carabao Cup. They also secured their place back in the Champions League at the first time of asking.
Guardiola is right in his assessment that the better team won, but that’s not always how the beautiful game works.
It would’ve been easy for Man United to fold after Ilkay Gundogan’s record-breaking goal but they got over the shellshock and responded well, Bruno Fernandes levelling the scores with a composed penalty.
The less said about what proved to be the winning goal, the better, from a Man United perspective but they came close to taking their opponents to extra time.
Livewire Alejandro Garnacho curled the ball just wide of the post with Stefan Ortega beaten all ends up in the second half, while Scott McTominay headed the ball against the crossbar in a manic stoppage-time scramble.
It’s huge progress from when City gave Man United a 6-3 hiding at the Etihad Stadium in October, a point Ten Hag was keen to reinforce during his post-match press conference.
“First of all I want to say congratulations to City for winning the FA Cup,” Ten Hag said. “But I think it was very narrow. I think it was head-to-head, it was very competitive.
“We had very good organisation, we didn’t let them out from open play against probably the best team in the world at the moment.
“We fought back after a quick goal down and I think we’re the only team in the world who has been able to fight back like this against City. I’m happy with the performance of my team.”
“Now the season’s finished and the conclusion is we made a brilliant season,” Ten Hag added.
“We’re working all season and we work day-by-day to develop the team and progress the team and I’m very proud where we’ve got to from the start of the season.
“Remember [the 4-0 defeat to] Brentford and remember also the Etihad. We showed [we can compete] against City at home and today, it’s no coincidence. On another day we could’ve won this game.”
Going toe-to-toe with the world’s best over 90 minutes is one thing, but going toe-to-toe with them over a nine-month season is a totally different ball game, which is something Ten Hag is fully aware of.
“We’re going in the right direction,” he said. “But there are some issues in the game which we have to improve if you want to make the next step and win trophies.”
The early signs shows there’s plenty of intent to achieve this endeavour with Man United closing in on the signing of Chelsea and England’s Mason Mount, while links to stars Harry Kane and Declan Rice also persist.
The direction of the 13-time Premier League winners is currently in a state of limbo with a purchase of the club off the much-maligned Glazer family still appearing no closer to coming to fruition.
But their display at Wembley shows they can get back on their perch if enough within the club want them to.