Manchester United will have a chance to put a potential first spoke in the wheel of Manchester City’s seemingly unstoppable crusade when it takes on its cross-city rival in the FA Cup final – the first Manchester derby at this tournament stage – at Wembley on Saturday.
City has already stitched up a third-consecutive Premier League title, suppressing the challenge of a belligerent Arsenal. Pep Guardiola’s side has also ravaged European heavyweights like Bayern Munich and Real Madrid on the way to the Champions League final, where it will face Inter Milan a week later.
Meanwhile, United had a topsy-turvy season, some calamitous defeats – 0-7 to Liverpool, 3-6 to City and 0-4 to Brentford – interspersed with a steady flow of positive results, which saw Erik Ten Hag lead United to a first title in six years in the form of League Cup, and finish a credible third in the league.
Battle of contrasts
United is a side in transition in terms of style and personnel. Ten Hag has been moulding the team along his principles of ball progression but is often held back by the ball-playing capability of his players, particularly goalkeeper David de Gea.
City, though, is a team well-rooted in Guardiola’s vision of possession football, with the side enjoying 64.7% of the ball in the league, a figure unmatched by any side in Europe’s top-five leagues, which is miles ahead of United’s number - 53.7%.
The Red Devils average only 3.68 passes per sequence (passages of a team’s play which ends with a defensive action, stoppages in play or a shot), which is only the seventh-best in the league. City, on the other hand, leads the league in that regard, with 5.3 passes per sequence, indicating the relative ease with which it passes the ball around its opponents.
City’s intricate style of play has a stark contrast to United’s approach, which often tilts to a direct strategy when it fails to pass its way out from the back.
Learnings from defeat
United’s capitulation to City, a 3-6 defeat early in the season, was a lesson in point for Ten Hag. Though it could score three goals against City’s watertight defence, United was clearly second-best.
Putting aside the high-scoring nature, that game also stood out for the fact that the Red Devils enjoyed nearly half the share of possession with their rivals, as City ceded control of the game and employed the devastating finishing capabilities of Erling Haaland, who scored a hat-trick along with Phil Foden.
Cut to three months later, City and United lined up against each other at Old Trafford, for the second iteration of the Manchester Derby. Ten Hag, learning from the previous drubbing, decided to not battle City for control of the ball, solidified his defence and structured his team to hit Guardiola’s side on the counter. City had 71% of the possession, nearly triple the number of United’s passes, but had only five shots in response to its opponents’ eight, which pulled off a 2-1 win.
Ten Hag will expectedly peg his side to the strategy of the latter encounter, opting for safety rather than bravery. City though has had the experience of seeing through some crunch UCL encounters, which will come in handy against its bitter rival.
Guardiola has a penchant for overcalculating in big games, resulting in some tragic, avoidable defeats in knockout games, particularly in UCL. But the 2023 Guardiola seems to have cracked the code, finally, as evidenced by the way his side steamrolled Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
A major factor in this change has been the presence of Haaland, whose minatory presence has not just provided Guardiola with an alternate avenue of playing the ball forward, but has created chaos among opposite defences, enabling City’s other attackers to thrive.
Even on the rare occasion, Haaland has failed to score, the Cityzens have found goalscorers aplenty, such as Bernardo Silva against Bayern and Madrid, as Kevin de Bruyne continues to create chances with relentless frequency.
Down in defence, which will be shielded by the ever-present Rodri, Ruben Dias and Manuel Akanji are likely to provide the defensive cover, while John Stones has often been used in an advanced position to solidify the midfield.
United isn’t blessed with the squad depth of its FA Cup final opponent. With Anthony Martial ruled out for Saturday and Antony unsure of participation, Ten Hag’s attacking options have dwindled even further.
A lot will hinge on Marcus Rashford, who breached the 30-goal mark in United’s last league game, against Fulham. The English forward’s devastating pace, coupled with his unerring finishing has made him the spearhead of United’s attack. Rashford should be supported by Jadon Sancho and Alejandro Garnacho.
Though United has a wealth of experience in midfield – consisting of Casemiro, Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes – their lack of mobility might be something Guardiola will look to exploit. This could mean Ten Hag could turn to the much more agile Fred to put pressure on City.
Victor Lindelof, who has filled in admirably well for the injured Lisandro Martinez, will likely partner the experienced Raphael Varane, while Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bisakka will man the flanks against City’s marauding wingers.
Nearly everything weighs in favour of Guardiola’s City – Form, squad depth, tactical assuredness. But United will look to fall back on the club’s legacy of raking in trophies and bank on the credentials of serial winners like Casemiro and Varane.
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