This was perhaps the perfect way to win it, the perfect way to confirm Manchester City’s status as the defining domestic force of the age and all-round era-machine.
The words used to describe this team, the semantic field of Pep-era City, tend to be mechanical. City are a juggernaut, a steamroller, a fully operational death star. They completed the league and Cup Double here with a couple of moments of routine, mid-30s brilliance from a footballer who looks less like a visitor from the footballing future, more like a cuddly pirate.
Enter Ilkay Gündogan, still killing them softly, seven years into his time at City. This was not Gündogan’s last game for the club. That will probably be next Saturday in Istanbul. It is easy to forget he was Pep Guardiola’s first signing, that he has been present in every version of this team and yet always seems somehow a surprise, a bonus element.
So it was here, where Gündogan did something astonishing but still oddly everyday. It is hard to think of another footballer who could score the fastest Cup final goal with his right foot, a moment of pure footballing beauty, then score the winner with his left in the second half, run the midfield battle in between, and manage all this while operating under that familiar anti-radar cloak.
The opening goal will come to stand as its defining moment, another clip for that fond old moth-eaten all-time highlights reel. It took just less than 13 seconds from kick-off and came, in classic Pep style, from the launched ball in search of flick-on, second ball and position of maximum opportunity.
Stefan Ortega’s clumped clearance was headed up in the air. The ball bounced. Victor Lindelöf tried to nod it clear but saw his clearance deflect off Kevin De Bruyne, sending it floating gently into the path of Gündogan at the edge of the box, spider senses twitching, the picture starting to take shape.
Gündogan watched it drop on to his right foot and connected perfectly, not breaking stride. The air inside Wembley was still hazy with smoke, noise, vibes, static from kick off. It seemed to lift the ball like a thermal current, that white orb rising above the line of the crossbar, then dipping in a vicious arc past David de Gea, who just stood and watched, mesmerised by the lines, the geometry, slumping on his goalline as it zinged into the corner of the goal behind him.
There have been great Cup final goals and early Cup final goals. This was both, a moment of pure, unfiltered blue sky talent. Gündogan is out of contract in the summer. Arsenal and Barcelona are said to be in the queue. Gündogan would improve both of those teams beyond recognition. He’s still doing it for City, driving them on towards that treble after 300 games, 60 goals and 11 trophies.
Gündogan is a remarkable player in other ways, too. Footballers don’t generally look like this. Footballers are snake-hipped super athletes, all tensile strength and elite power-to-weight ratios. Gündogan is small and slightly rotund.
He doesn’t have a football haircut, or a footballer’s look of fierce, hungry focus. He seems to be thinking about things; scurries about the pitch like a fond old family labrador who knows how to open the back door and brings you your favourite jumper when you feel sad.
But he is also in many ways a perfect player, pure technique, pure feeling, all brain. This was his 60th game of the season. These were his fifth and sixth goals in his past six games right at the sharp end.
The Wembley colours were agreeably cinematic at the start, blocks of soft sky blue and United red, drenched in Cup-classic hazy June sunshine. As the players walked out there were tongues of fire, dignitary flash, a genuine crackle of event glamour around those triple-tiered stands.
United did rally after that early goal, Bruno Fernandes equalising from the spot after a ludicrously harsh penalty call on Jack Grealish, guilty, like so many before him, of the crime of possessing arms.
At 1-1, Guardiola flexed and whirled on his touchline, dressed for the day like the commander of a private guerrilla army on weekend manoeuvres in a remote jungle outpost.
It was Gündogan and De Bruyne who began to take the game back. And the same two players combined to make the winning goal midway through the second half.
There was some buried brilliance from De Bruyne, first winning the free-kick, then disguising his floated pass to the back of the penalty area, where Gündogan was stood in his designated acre of space.
He had time to measure it out, to wait, to stay still before striking the ball with total focus on his weaker foot, like an earnest schoolboy reading from a manual. In many ways it was a stinker, a grubber, the ball bouncing twice before creeping right into the corner of De Gea’s goal. But this was also the shot of a player who knows how this game works.
City might have scored more at the death. They are just a much stronger bunch of players. United’s all or nothing su