Manchester United left to rely on magic of the FA Cup in most one-sided meeting of rivals

(Getty Images)

After a season where Manchester United’s tactical system has been constantly debated, Erik ten Hag doesn’t have the luxury of choice ahead of the final game, which could well be his last game. The Dutch coach has to prepare for underdog football in Saturday’s FA Cup final against Manchester City. This is not one for ideology. Pretty much everyone has to compromise when facing Pep Guardiola, but there's more to that here.

Maybe the greatest uncertainty about the game is just how much of an underdog United are. It’s difficult to think of a final between two major clubs where there has felt such an extreme chasm. The gap is such that the dynamic of this game is much more akin to the Arsenal-Hull City final of 2014 than even last year’s meeting between the same two Manchester clubs.

It is a feeling only accentuated by how they have both immediately returned to the final, with the same successive pairing happening for only the second time in history, but the gap has grown since. City have only strengthened their hold over the English game, as they also aim for the country’s first ever double-double. That was a feat that not even Sir Alex Ferguson managed. The closest he went was doubles in 1994 and 1996, albeit with two runners-up in between. Guardiola can go way beyond that, by adding the FA Cup to this season’s Premier League, on top of last season’s treble.

It is already unprecedented dominance, that has provoked bigger questions for the English game.

By contrast, Ten Hag is barely hanging on to his job. A common feeling is that the only reason nothing has happened yet is because, one, United still have this cup final and, two, the manager market has been rather thin. The latter is something that changed dramatically this week, with the availability of both Mauricio Pochettino and Thomas Tuchel. The United hierarchy still have a preference for Gareth Southgate, and there is now strong interest in Kieran McKenna, but such names will provoke new debate.

We are almost past the point where victory in the FA Cup - to admittedly make it two trophies in two seasons - would change that discussion. Ten Hag’s Premier League and Champions League campaigns were too shambolic. By contrast, there’s almost a feeling that this final could make it worse.

There is some discussion within the game about how City could easily subject their historic rivals to the same scale of defeat they tortured Watford with in 2019. That was a 6-0, and that's the kind of gap we're talking about. If it sounds outlandish, you only have to look at the odds for this match. It is genuinely notable United have gone out to 5-1. That is remarkable for a derby match in a final between two clubs like this.

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Casemiro and Varane must stop Haaland in their final game for United (Getty Images)

The painful truth for United is that, if City are in the mood, they could really subject Ten Hag’s team to absolute humiliation. We might not have seen the nadir yet.

It is that simple. The gap between the teams is too great. Even if the game just goes relatively normally, with both sides playing to their general level, it would merely be a comfortable win for the Abu Dhabi project.

That’s almost as bad as humiliation itself, in how it would just be considered so routine. This is what INEOS have been wrestling with as they assess every aspect of United right now. While the new hierarchy are much blunter with those inside the club, the coded language from figures like Sir Dave Brailsford to those outside Old Trafford is that there is “opportunity”. They’ve seen a lot of areas where there is “considerable margin for improvement”.

Perhaps the biggest is the space in front of defence, as United have allowed opposition sides so many shots this season. It is why results like that 4-0 at Crystal Palace eventually became inevitable. What might Kevin De Bruyne or Phil Foden do there?

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Foden finished the season in great form (Getty Images)

And yet this is also where there is a strange kind of hope for United.

For all that major clubs dominate the modern FA Cup, its knock-out nature means it is more subject to wild swings of luck… to “magic”, even if that’s in the sense of improbable things happening.

United’s very run to the final has already featured plenty of that. The quarter-final against Liverpool had been built up in the same way as this game, as if Jurgen Klopp's team would just thrash them. There’s even a fair argument that Liverpool did exactly that in general play, given how they cut United open. As can happen in one-off knock-outs, though, that didn’t actually bear out on the pitch. Liverpool missed too many chances. United took theirs, with the dramatic nature of Antony's late equaliser and Amad Diallo's extra-time stoppage-time winner only fostering an emotional momentum about this run. It was the sort of game that people used to cite as reasons why names are on the cup - before City just won most of them.

There is still a certain sense of fate, though. That did admittedly come with the sense of farce from that semi-final against Coventry City, albeit with the almost symbolic appearance of a United FA Cup hero in Mark Robins. It was he who famously saved Sir Alex Ferguson’s run at the trophy in 1990, and propelled that entire era. It was he who Ten Hag’s United almost had to fall past to get to Wembley again.

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Only a late VAR call saved United further embarrassment in the semi-final against Coventry (Getty Images)

There is then the build-up to this final. Has there ever been an individual story that seemed as set up for a narrative twist as Marcus Rashford’s? It was as recently as Tuesday he was left out of an England tournament squad for the first time in his career, and that on the back of a poor season.

And yet he still has the potential for a moment. He now has even greater motivation. Ten Hag could do with it. Around United, there is already talk of Eric Cantona in 1996, or Norman Whiteside in 1985.

City don’t really need to indulge in any of that. They can just point to the performance of the last few weeks, the form of Foden.

It is why the absence of Harry Maguire is important, because he would be suited to this type of approach. United have to sit deep. They could do with Casemiro reviving his own form in front of the backline, if for one night only. They would then seek to release Alejandro Garnacho and Rashford.

It says much that this is what it is being looked to: a bit of magic, counter-attacking football, the luck of the cup. It is the final, though, and a few people will want the last word.

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