Manchester United’s only chance to beat City in FA Cup final lies in these tactical ploys

Manchester City midfielder Rodri - Manchester United's only chance against City lies in these tactical ploys

Manchester United fans travel to Wembley in hope rather than expectation and perhaps fearful of being embarrassed by Manchester City in the FA Cup final.

Erik ten Hag was characteristically bullish after last year’s final, praising United for keeping the game close following Ilkay Gundogan’s goal 12 seconds into the contest.

City never looked in serious jeopardy but had to withstand some late squalls of United pressure and were unable to fully expose the gulf in quality between the sides.

That should offer Ten Hag a morsel of encouragement, as should the fact Manchester City had to sprint to the final day of the Premier League season to see off Arsenal (unlike last season).

These are some tactical ploys that can give United a fighting chance on Saturday.

Emulate Tottenham’s midfield box

If United could sign for more possession, more completed passes, more shots and more shots on target than City as well as 1.33 expected goals they would snatch the pen from your hand.

One team who did exactly that against City in the season’s final weeks was Tottenham Hotspur, who were perhaps unfortunate not to come away with at least a draw against the champions.

Ange Postecoglou sprang a surprise that night by moving away from his usual 4-3-3 turned 2-3-5 and using a midfield box. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Rodrigo Bentancur played deeper with James Maddison and Pape Matar Sarr higher up. There was no centre-forward presence, with Son Heung-min high and wide on the left and Brennan Johnson likewise on the right flank (see below heatmap). You could easily envisage Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho providing the same dynamic.

Manchester United's only chance against City lies in these tactical ploys
Manchester United's only chance against City lies in these tactical ploys

The result was that Spurs’ two pacy wide forwards occupied Man City’s back four which created numerical advantages elsewhere to progress the ball through the thirds. Spurs managed to starve City of possession, and deny Guardiola’s team of their usual rhythm.

As explored in greater depth on these pages here, City are also potentially more open in transition this season because their full-backs are playing in wider, more orthodox roles. City are not quite flooding the middle of the pitch as they once did, placing significant strain on Rodri. The space is to either side of City’s holding midfielder, though Guardiola has stabilised his team by introducing Mateo Kovacic.

Manchester United's only chance against City lies in these tactical ploys
Manchester United's only chance against City lies in these tactical ploys

In United’s final league game of the season, Ten Hag picked a similar system to Postecoglou’s in a potential FA Cup final dress rehearsal. Sofyan Ambrabat, Kobbie Mainoo, Scott McTominay and Bruno Fernandes all played centrally with Amad Diallo and Garnacho wide as nominal forwards (see above heatmap). The question is whether United’s players have the confidence and technical quality to move the ball as well as Spurs did.

Cut off passing lanes into Rodri

Phil Foden may well have swept the season’s individual awards, but no City player is as influential as Rodri. City’s only three Premier League defeats this season came when the Spaniard was absent.

Rodri had more touches than any player in the league, played more passes into the final third and progressive passes than any player and finished the season with eight goals and nine assists. All this while shielding his centre-backs and snuffing out counter-attacks by fair means or foul.

Rodri completed fewer than 70 passes only on three occasions when he completed 90 minutes in the Premier League this season. Two of those three games were chaotic 3-3 and 4-4 draws with Spurs and Chelsea. If Rodri’s influence can be limited, City find it harder to enjoy their customary control.

The big decision for Ten Hag is whether to assign a player to man-mark Rodri or to use a more zonal or situational approach. United’s man-marking has been pulled apart frequently under Ten Hag, and that ploy risks clearing room for a defender such as John Stones to step out with the ball.

A more sensible strategy might be asking McTominay or Fernandes, depending on which flank City are building, to try to keep themselves between Rodri and the player on the ball. This is something coaches call keeping a player in your cover shadow. A sign of success will be if Rodri starts dropping deep, between the centre-backs, in search of the ball.

Watch out for the cut-back

All season long, United have been vulnerable to passes pulled back from the byline towards the edge of the box.

An ineffective offside line has asked defenders to run back towards their own goal, and on several occasions they have been able to apply the breaks in time.

Ten Hag’s man-marking in midfield has also been a problem, with midfielders tracking runners all the way into United’s defensive line rather than defending the zone in front of the centre-backs. Michael Carrick was once a master at reading and intercepting pull-backs in a United shirt.

With Lisandro Martínez starting the final game of the season and Raphaël Varane coming on as a substitute, there is at least the prospect of United starting their first-choice centre-back partnership. They need to back themselves to deal with Erling Haaland and make sure their midfielders guard the space in front of them.

City repeatedly score goals from cut-backs and swept low crosses, with Foden and Rodri racking up the goals from midfield this season. The pair will be lurking with intent at the edge of United’s box.

City’s first goal at Spurs was a textbook example of the blindside underlaps their attacking midfielders make to get to the byline. In this case it was Kevin De Bruyne. These movements have been a feature since Guardiola arrived.

To go long or not go long?

There was a shift in strategy at half-time from United in this season’s Manchester derby at the Etihad. Andre Onana started to play short from goal-kicks as Ten Hag tried to prevent City from building up waves of attacks. It did not have the desired effect.

In the first 45 minutes of that game, United threatened on the occasions when they were more direct. Rashford’s opening goal came from Onana picking out Fernandes with a long ball forward.

This is a dilemma all teams face against City. They are such a pressing force, it can seem prudent to clip the ball over them and bypass the midfield. City also offer plenty of space behind their defenders, so it is tempting to try to go long.

However, this can result in the ball coming straight back, with Rodri hoovering up second balls and starting City attacks.

United will have to play short and long at different stages of the game, but must make sure they do not fall between the two stools in the same phase of play. If Onana kicks long when his defenders have split to receive the ball, United will be stretched from front to back if the ball is lost.