FA Cup final preview | Manchester City v Manchester United

You’ve probably heard it everywhere in the past few weeks, which team was better, Sir Alex Ferguson’s heroic 99’ treble winning Red Devils or Pep Guardiola’s mesmerising treble challenging citizens? 

Don’t worry, we won’t get into that today, but this Saturday 3pm at Wembley stadium, Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United will have the chance to end the debate there and then as they face bitter rivals Manchester City in the FA Cup final.

The clash will be the first ever Manchester derby to take place in the FA Cup final and it will no doubt will make for an enthralling and tightly knitted affair. 

Games as big as these can be won or lost on just a single managerial tweak or in a single area, so we’re here to give you a rundown of the key decisions each manager will face and what tactical battles and nuances you should look out for across every area of the pitch. 


Keeping City’s front line quiet will be no simple feat for the EFL Cup champions this weekend, and with their aggressive left-sided centre-back Lisandro Martinez having been out injured since April, their task is made no easier. 

Whilst Raphaël Varane is a certified starter, his partner is unclear. Victor Lindelof is the most natural fit, but Luke Shaw has thoroughly impressed playing alongside the Frenchman this season, with his natural cultured left foot and excellent incisive passing offering United extra angles and options when building from the back.

Ten Hag has recently preferred starting both players in his backline, with the English international returning to his more natural left-back role. However, utilising Shaw at centre-back and Dutchman Tyrell Malacia at left-back has proved fruitful against their neighbours in the past, notably in their last matchup at Old Trafford in January, where the Red Devils walked away with a 2-1 home victory.

As for their right side of defence, despite Diogo Dalot recently renewing his contract at the club until 2027, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is expected to make the 11 over the two. His outstanding one-versus-one tackling ability makes him the perfect remedy for Jack Grealish’s remarkable ball-carrying and dribbling.

On the opposite side of the field, Portuguese international Rúben Dias will be the backbone in the middle of a back three, with Kyle Walker flanking him on his right, and one of Nathan Aké or Manuel Akanji to the left of him. The latter has displayed his versatility and reliability this season by playing across the entire back-line and accumulating more league minutes than any of his positional peers at the club. 

Aké has also surprised many this season, ousting previous fan-favourite Aymeric Laporte to become the main starter on the left side of City’s defence, proving vital with his security both in and out of possession. However, the Dutchman only returned from a near month-long spell on the side-lines last Sunday, so whether it be him or Akanji to start remains unclear. 

As for Walker, the 33-year-old has been crucial for his side in the run-in of the campaign and will be yet again as he’ll be tasked with matching, or bettering, the pace of Marcus Rashford’s dangerous runs in behind. 

As previously mentioned, the Premier League champions will most likely set up in a back three, however, don’t be surprised to see John Stones occasionally drop in between Dias and Walker from his midfield role to form a more traditional back four out of possession. This rotation will be key in suppressing the threat of those aforementioned channel runs that United’s top scorer will be constantly attempting. 


The midfield battle will be an intriguing watch for both managers and fans alike this Saturday afternoon.

Rodri and Stones will pair together to create an interchanging double-pivot that rarely cedes possession and keeps play ticking, whilst Gündoğan and De Bruyne will form a box-like shape just in front. The two City stalwarts will incessantly look to get in between the lines and find pockets of space to overload the opposing defensive structure and create an abundance of chances for themselves and their teammates.

Conversely, whilst Casemiro will undoubtedly be the destroyer in United’s midfield, the question remains, who will play alongside the Brazilian? The former Ajax head coach will have to choose between either Christian Eriksen or Fred. The Dane will be a more influential presence in possession, helping his side transition the ball from defence to attack, whereas the Brazilian’s infinite energy and tenacity could provide the five-time Champions League, Casemiro, the licence to break up play and thwart City’s attack, maximising his outstanding ability to read the game and sniff out danger.  

Eriksen has been the most common choice this season, with on-field captain Bruno Fernandes often playing in a more advanced role ahead of the pairing, however, injuries in forward positions make this decision slightly more complicated and could leave them vulnerable in other areas, which must be considered.  

Another factor to consider is how the line-ups fared in the previous two Manchester derbies. In fact, during the Red Devils’ 6-3 humiliation away at the Etihad, neither Fred or Casemiro were in the starting XI, but in the reverse fixture, all three players mentioned started as they came out on top, with Eriksen taking up a more advanced role just to the right of Fernandes, giving them a critical extra body in midfield to help matchup against the inevitable central overloads City try to create.  

Due to it’s prior success, and the injuries discussed above, we think ten Hag will field all three again as he looks to secure his second trophy in England and protect the legacy of his predecessors’ treble winning side.


Finally, we move onto the attack. United come into this with both Antony and Anthony Martial out injured. The latter of which seemingly cannot catch a break, with this being his fifth injury of the season according to Transfermarkt, thus missing 33 out of the 62 games his side have played.

These injuries present a predicament for the Dutch manager. Does the 53-year-old play Rashford centrally with Sancho right-wing and the inexperienced live wire Alejandro Garnacho on the left to provide them with an extra level of speed and attacking threat? Or does he look for a more conservative option in Wout Weghorst? Despite not being the most athletic, the 30-year-old Burnley loanee works extremely hard, can effectively link play and could be key in creating space to allow Fernandes to play incisive through balls for the wingers to latch onto.  

Well, we think it will be neither of the two. Rather, United might set up with the triumvirate of Eriksen, Fernandes and Sancho all playing just behind United’s academy graduate Rashford. Although this setup does make the 25-year-old the central focal point for his teammates to look for, rather than in what is seen as his best position on the left, it doesn’t completely eliminate the threat of Rashford’s outside-to-in runs, but instead provides the ideal opportunity for him to go unnoticed in drifting out to the left, as Eriksen and Fernandes will rotate with one another on the right and look to find the perfect angle to play one of their trademark lofted diagonal balls in behind City’s defensive line.

On the other hand, City’s attack is more predictable, with Grealish hugging the touchline on the left, Bernardo Silva weaving in and out of players on the right, and the not insignificant Erling Haaland terrorizing whichever two centre half’s he’ll be up against. Both Gündoğan and De Bruyne will also look to join the front three, forming the innovative 3-2-4-1 shape that has dominated so many sides and allowed their Norwegian striker to score a ridiculous 36 Premier League goals over the past season.

That’s not to mention the likes of Julián Álvarez, Riyad Mahrez and Phil Foden, who will be waiting in the wings should Guardiola want to add some extra firepower to their frontline. Foden, a boyhood citizen, in particular will be raring to go if he doesn’t start, as he will look to give United fans nightmares once again, after bagging his first career hat-trick in the tie earlier on in the season.

So, there you have it, the key decisions each manager will face and the areas of the pitch in which the game (and the treble) can be won or lost.  

Regardless of whether Rashford is baring down on goal against Stefan Ortega or Ederson, or if Haaland is charging down at Varane and Lindelof or Varane and Shaw, this game promises to be an extremely exciting and memorable affair.

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