Now for the big series-ender. You have to hand it to the FA Cup. Football’s grand old patrician knockout pot may have grown a little mildewed and liver-spotted with age. But, like some geriatric sovereign stepping out from the shadows and striding the shopfloors one last time, it still knows how to twitch the threads. Saturday’s final at Wembley already looks like that rarest of things, a genuine multilayered epic.
At the end of a season that seems to have been going on for at least three years, when so many storylines have faded in and out, fractured by the outage at its centre, here is an end note to the domestic calendar that comes prepacked with fat, wet, impossibly ripe storylines. Power, succession, legacy. A heritage-gold 3pm kick-off. Frankly the Cup hasn’t looked so vital or hip in years.
That feeling of narrative overload is present even in the staging and the dramatis personae. The FA Cup was founded in 1871 as a first attempt at codification, at imposing governance, rules and discipline. Basically, this is a competition born out of the Victorian urge to make sure everyone is playing by the same rules. Fast forward to the present day and in the sky-blue corner we have potential Cup winners with 115 charges of financial and administrative misconduct hanging over them. Perhaps this is football’s idea of dramatic irony.
Manchester City, of course, deny breaking the rules. City’s supporters, who have the chance to boo not one governing body but two in the next couple of weeks, make the point that these rules shouldn’t exist in the first place and therefore deserve to be broken.
It is at least an impressive on-brand, dictator-level approach to reform. Not to mention one that has to date worked out pretty well. Frankly, City could bring back hacking and unilaterally re-abolish the crossbar. If your lawyers are expensive enough it all tends to work out in the end.
Zoom out a little further and there is of course a more familial power struggle in play on Saturday afternoon. The most obvious note of dramatic tension is City’s pursuit of what Rodri has (adorably) called “the thriple”. Pep Guardiola’s sublime champion team are two Saturdays away from matching Manchester United’s feat in the peak Alex Ferguson years of league, Cup and Europe.
Much has been made of United’s additional motivation to protect this note of legacy gold, to play not just for themselves but for the noble dead, the ghosts of the past.
Manchester City (4-1-4-1): Ortega; Walker, Stones, Dias, Akanji; Rodri; Mahrez, Gündogan, De Bruyne, Grealish; Haaland.
Subs from: Carson, Palmer, Wilson-Esbrand, Ederson, Álvarez, Gómez, Phillips, Perrone, Lewis, Laporte, Silva, Foden, Aké.
Doubtful: Ake (calf)
Manchester United (4-1-2-1-3) De Gea; Wan-Bissaka, Lindelöf, Varane, Shaw; Casemiro; Fred, Eriksen; Fernandes, Rashford, Garnacho.
Subs from: Heaton, Butland, Pellistri, Elanga, Williams, Mainoo, Weghorst, McTominay, Sancho, Maguire, Dalot, Anthony.
Doubtful: Antony (match fitness)
Injured: Tuanzebe, Van de Beek, Martínez, Sabitzer, Martial.
For the Cup itself this is all rocket fuel, all borrowed heat and light. But is it really good for Manchester United? Here we have a club that has spent a decade at war with its own past, burdened by the ghosts of Giggsy, Scholesy, Keano, marching those waxworks around the pitch, chastised by the Easter Island heads of the punditry table.
There has been cautious progress this year. Erik ten Hag’s team have a Champions League spot and the sense, finally, of a grownup in the room. But the good parts have come out of looking forward. Wrestling with the past, failing to match the past, allowing the past to interfere with the present: this has been a constant source of weight and drag over the past decade. Who knows, it might even be best, in the end, to watch that treble burn, to let someone else carry the weight.
Beyond the treble talk, this is about control, ascent and a kind of ultimacy. For Guardiola Saturday offers the chance to lay down another defining note in his team’s dominance of the post-Ferguson space in English football. Victory would make it 11 domestic trophies in six years.
Even the run to the final has been telling, with wins against Chelsea, Arsenal, Bristol City, Burnley and Sheffield United by an aggregate score of 17-0. This mature Pep team are playing at a rare pitch, pared to a fine point by a manager operating with a kind of light around him, in one of those golden blooms where he sees the picture with total clarity, where selection, rotation, in-game tweaks and switches of angle come with a lucid sense of cause and effect.
This is also the paradox of City, a club that embodies more clearly than any other the forces at work on this overheated global leisure industry. On the one hand here is a club run by the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi, charged with bending financial rules, able to operate – thanks to the farsighted backing of such visionaries as First Abu Dhabi Bank and Etihad Airlines – in a way that threatens to reduce this sport to a kind of exhibition, variables removed, the traditional values of jeopardy, folly and human weakness ironed out of the system.
At the same time, and even in their more pared-back form, all razor edge and defensive muscle, City are a beautiful thing to watch, a pure, frictionless machine, all ceaseless movement and total control of space, angles, time, resistance.
It is Guardiola’s genius to manage this project club and still retain the beauty, the sense of pure sporting virtues. For all the resources at his disposal this team are also a paradigm of fine coaching, of the simple virtues of prep and polish and fine detail. Seven years in, Guardiola has just turned John Stones into a world-class false 2, a tactical unicorn, a driving part in one of the great club teams. For all the money and the soft-power chicanery, Guardiola’s City remain a butterfly on the wheel, stretched but never quite broken. Saturday at Wembley followed by Saturday in Istanbul. It feels like a peak being reached.
Plus, of course, there is another team in this two-hander. If City feel like the embodiment of modern football’s immediate future, a triumph of nation-state power in the year of Qatar, the real relevance of that original treble year is in the patterns it helped to create.
Wind back 23 years and there is a kind of portent in what came immediately afterwards, United’s failure to enter the Cup the following year. Under pressure from the FA and the UK government, convinced that Fifa might still award England the 2006 World Cup, Ferguson’s treble holders went to Brazil to play in the World Club Cup, a wretchedly underpowered thing, and significant only as a step along the path of domestic football as global product, unit of power, political tool.
City might feel like the end point of this process. But it was United who opened the door, poster boys for the Premier League launch years, instigators in that new digital world of the idea of a football club as global eyeball magnet, mega-brand. In the middle of this, the grand old soup-stained FA Cup gets to play both sides on Saturday afternoon: to stand as a kind of counterpoint, with its lingering stagey, starchy air of equity and the pyramid; and to offer up its own perfectly turned drama of succession and legacy.