Why stopping Kovacic gives Man Utd FA Cup glory

Alex Cable looks ahead to Saturday’s FA Cup final between Manchester City and Manchester United.

Man City v Man Utd

A lot has changed in the 12 months since Man City and Man Utd met in the 2023 FA Cup Final.

A year ago, Man City won 2-1 in a close match at Wembley Stadium, reflecting the progress United were making under Erik ten Hoag.

Not many predicted a similar match on Saturday after Man Utd slumped to their lowest ever Premier League finish last weekend when Man City made it four titles in a row under Pep Guardiola.

But it is not that simple. Tactically, Den Haag has shown in recent Manchester derbies (and beyond) that he is ready to go with a defensive strategy to soak up the pressure, attack Man City on the break and look for a smash-and-grab victory.

More than ever, he needs it to work.

Last year, an FA Cup win would have been the icing on Den Haag’s strong debut season.

This time, victory is needed to secure a UEFA Europa League place and avoid a first year without European football since 2014/15.

Meanwhile, Man City are still chasing more records. No team has ever won back-to-back doubles. Guardiola would demand nothing less.

Their most recent meeting tells us what the tactical story will be

Man City’s 3-1 win over Man Utd in their Premier League meeting at the Etihad Stadium in March gives us a valuable insight into how this encounter will play out.

United’s defensive approach saw them go 1-0 up with 57 minutes on the clock, enough for Den Haag to declare it a „good performance” in his post-match press conference.

„We went 1-0 up on schedule,” he said. „I think we have a chance to get at least a point, but a win is also possible.”

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He’ll do the trick again, even if United are literally outplayed from start to finish.

At half-time Man City’s Expected Goals (xG) was 2.73 (United’s 0.22), and the hosts had 18 shots, as Man Utd faced Man Utd in the first half of the Premier League match.

By the final whistle, Man City had 74 per cent possession and 27 shots to Man Utd’s three, the club’s second-fewest in a top-flight competition.

Frankly, it didn’t have a good performance. But there’s plenty of evidence that Ten Haag will stay plump regardless of the same strategy.

McTominay’s use of ten Hoag’s 4-6-0 shows preparation for a comeback

That strategy involved a 4-4-2 formation, minus a striker, with Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay effectively used as „false nines”.

The duo have played together frequently in May, with Rasmus Hojlund dropped to the bench and Den Haag preparing to replicate the approach used in the last league meeting with City.

In theory it’s a 4-4-2, but in the 3-1 loss to Man City, it’s more like a 4-6-0 or 6-4-0: Fernandez and McTominay drop into midfield. Midfielders Casemiro and Kobi Mainu sat deeper as part of Man City’s efforts to man up Man City’s charging number 8s.

This led to a wildly disorganized form as Mainu and Casemiro were pulled all over the place when tracking the runners.

Below, Erling Haaland can be seen creating an open goal that he inexplicably missed in the first half, and it shows how Casemiro’s tracking of Bernardo Silva freed Rodri.

This happened again and again as United, incredibly deep and entwined in their own half, stretched their midfield out of shape.

This time McTominay was tight to Rodry, creating an empty space for Phil Foden to level.

Bill Foden Cole v MUN
Man City’s main man is Kovacic

Den Haag approached their last meeting in this way, as United won 2–1 at Old Trafford in January 2023 in the 2023 FA Cup Final and the league match before that.

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In both cases man-marking worked in open play.

But that’s mainly because Man City struggled to create through Rodry, who was isolated in this match without a midfield partner alongside him.

It was a typical example of what City’s build-up was like and how easy it was for United to go man-to-man and progress.

Rhodri was isolated.

In Arsenal’s recent 1-0 win at Old Trafford, the combination of Thomas Partey and Takehiro Tomiyasu lacked the technical ability to pass through.

That wasn’t the case in the 3-1 win in March, however, as John Stones played alongside Rhodri – helping to ensure dominance – while Foden, Silva and Kevin De Bruyne narrowed the back row to receive passes. Exploit space.

One of the most important players on the pitch on Saturday was Mateo Kovacic: Guardiola’s new go-to man sat alongside Rodri, moving around the third and pushing the rest of the team back.

If United can man-mark Kovacic and Rodry, they are likely to fight to disrupt City’s run.

Diallo and Garnacho are expected to lead the charge on the counter

If that happens, Man Utd can compete centrally – and counter-attack.

It’s a simple idea – Amat Diallo and Alejandro Garnacho will make runs on the shoulder of the high line, and Fernandez will find them.

United top the Premier League charts for direct attacks (102) and Fernandez is second in the category for successful through balls (30), reflecting Ten Hoag’s commitment to the tactic.

And the introduction of Diallo helped. He had 5.35 take-ons per 90 in the Premier League last season, more than any other Man Utd player who started more than one match.

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Guardiola doubling up could hurt United’s full-backs

But even with the middle clocked up and United facing off, Man City still have the tools to beat Man Utd in wide areas.

Back to winning ways in March, Guardiola replaced Foden and De Bruyne on the left in the second half, leaving substitutes Willy Kambawala and Anthony in defense.

That led directly to the second goal. Foden and Julian Álvarez left space to play a one-two, and Foden scored, only for De Bruyne to pick off Kambwala.

Foden 2-v Man Utd

Interestingly, this is not the first time this has happened in a Manchester derby.

The first meeting of the 2023/24 season, a 3-0 win for Man City at Old Trafford, was defined by Guardiola’s use of two left-backs in the same manner.

On this occasion, Jack Grealish and Silva doubled Diogo Dalot, starting on the right and Fernandes fighting back.

Here, Holland was presented with a huge opportunity – again missed – by playing this combination down the left.

holland chance_

In the second half, an almost identical double led to the all-important second goal.

holland goal__

Therefore, Man Utd must successfully block the midfield without leaving gaps with overtracking runners, and if their direct counter-attacks wreak havoc behind Man City’s higher order, they must hope that their full-backs are not yet overwhelmed.

That’s a lot to deal with. Man City are favorites for a reason.

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