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Sunday, June 16, 2024

FA Cup final exposed Man City’s flaws as they approach a fork in the road

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Pep Guardiola identified the culprit, the man who cost Manchester City the double double. It was not Josko Gvardiol, though he lobbed his own goalkeeper Stefan Ortega with a header to give Alejandro Garnacho an open goal in the FA Cup final. Nor was it Kevin de Bruyne, though he produced one of his most ineffective performances in a City shirt. Nor Erling Haaland, who hit the woodwork but still has not scored in a final for City. Nor Mateo Kovacic and Nathan Ake, who both got the hook at the break.

It was him. “My mistake, my gameplan was not good,” he said. A match that promised to be one last occasion when Erik ten Hag got his tactics wrong instead saw Guardiola forced into a half-time double change, followed by a shift of system to 4-4-2. The mea culpa, however, may not have been necessary. “He’s the last man I’m going to question on tactics because he’s a genius for what he’s done,” said captain Kyle Walker, whose dream of lifting a fourth trophy in his first campaign with the armband had ended.

Two, though, were the spoils of last season’s success, the Club World Cup and the European Super Cup. In one respect, City have done back-to-back trebles. But this was not the treble, just as another prestigious achievement eluded them. “The double double has never been done, that’s why it’s so hard,” reflected Walker. At the last, City delivered their worst performance of 2024. The result was a first defeat in 36 games; caused not by overthinking – the familiar diagnosis for some of Guardiola’s defining defeats – as much as by a strange sluggishness.

Pep Guardiola admitted he got his FA Cup final gameplan wrong

Pep Guardiola admitted he got his FA Cup final gameplan wrong (AFP/Getty)

City have come from behind many a time this season, including against United in March, but this proved a comeback too far. So their season ended as it began, with a trophy eluding them at Wembley: the Community Shield was on penalties, the FA Cup in 90 minutes. Guardiola has won 26 of his 31 finals as a manager but two of the exceptions came this season.

So how do City remember this campaign? It brought the official high of being able to call themselves champions of the world, 25 years and three days after they were losing at York in the third tier. Yet they were not quite all-conquering: they will not be back at Wembley on Saturday for the Champions League final and while it took penalties for Real Madrid to stop them, the reality is that, unlike last year, there was no evidence they had put distance between themselves and the rest of the European elite.

They churned out a fourth straight Premier League title, going unbeaten from December, registering 91 points: because it is this City, such feats felt routine though for another side, they may have been deemed extraordinary. Shootouts apart, they only lost five games of 59 over the season.

Man City rattled off a fourth straight Premier League title but endured a mixed campaign

Man City rattled off a fourth straight Premier League title but endured a mixed campaign (PA Wire)

Those defeats have been emphatic and deserved but otherwise, that refusal to be beaten became one of their strengths. Like Bayer Leverkusen, Rodri was almost an Invincible, getting to the brink of an unbeaten season before losing a final. He had sat out the other four defeats. He was indispensable but others shared an attitude. There have been slicker Guardiola teams – quicker ones, too – but none of his City sides have lost as few matches in a season.

Yet by their standards, it was a good rather than a great year. They held off Arsenal’s challenge domestically through a combination of muscle memory and the brilliance of Phil Foden. There is a lack of genuinely great European teams now and the Champions League afforded an opportunity but this City are yet to rival Guardiola’s Barcelona among two-time winners.

With Guardiola pledging to stay for next season, even if his future is uncertain beyond then, a winning machine domestically will have continuity, although there is the context of the existential concern their 115 charges may provide. But many a club is at a crossroads this summer. City are not, but there may be some forks in the road ahead.

Man City may be approaching a fork in the road after this FA Cup final loss

Man City may be approaching a fork in the road after this FA Cup final loss (Reuters)

If the plan was to buy Lucas Paqueta from West Ham to add craft and creativity, that will have to be aborted. Some kind of midfield addition is nevertheless likely and required; in different ways, City have got very little from Kalvin Phillips, Matheus Nunes and Jack Grealish this year. Of last summer’s newcomers, Jeremy Doku’s final goal showed he can be a difference-maker and is an exciting addition. Gvardiol, his final error notwithstanding, has turned into an excellent addition, even if it will be instructive whether he is actually trusted to play in the middle.

Yet the defensive formula of players who are either centre-backs by trade or Walker can leave City with fewer technicians when they go forward; in turn, that makes them more reliant on individual inspiration. Foden has often obliged; De Bruyne too, though a flurry of assists has been accompanied by some strangely off-colour performances, some in the bigger games. Haaland got his 38 goals but, his brace at Tottenham aside, too few in the major matches.

And a 2-1 scoreline in a Manchester derby of an FA Cup final was an echo of last year. But with a difference. Then, two goals came from Ilkay Gundogan, the big-game performer and the captain who lifted a trio of trophies and promptly left. It has been a regular refrain of City’s season that, for all the victories, they have not truly replaced Gundogan. At the last, they got an unwanted illustration of it.

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