Why stopping Kovacic gives Man Utd a chance of FA Cup glory

By Alex Keble 23 May 2024
Mateo Kovacic

Alex Keble looks at how Erik ten Hag's side can get the better of Man City in Saturday's FA Cup final

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Alex Keble 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 were 2-1 winners in a close match at Wembley Stadium that reflected the progress United were making under Erik ten Hag.

Not many people are predicting a similarly competitive contest on Saturday, not after Man Utd slumped to their lowest-ever Premier League finish last weekend while Man City made it four titles in a row under Pep Guardiola.

But it isn’t as simple as that. Tactically, Ten Hag has shown in recent Manchester Derbies (and beyond) that he is willing to go with a defensive strategy to soak up pressure, hit Man City on the break, and look for a smash-and-grab win.

More than ever, he needs it to work.

Last year, an FA Cup win would have been the icing on the cake for a strong debut season for Ten Hag.

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

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

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

Man City’s 3-1 victory over Man Utd in their Premier League meeting at the Etihad Stadium in March gives us invaluable insight into how this encounter may look.

United’s defensive approach had them 1-0 up with 57 minutes on the clock, enough for Ten Hag to declare it a “good performance” in his post-match press conference.

“We went 1-0 up, according to plan,” he said. “I think we had the opportunity to at least get one point, but also a win was possible.”

He will probably repeat the tactic, then, even though in reality United were outplayed virtually from start to finish.

At half-time Man City had an Expected Goals (xG) of 2.73 (to United’s 0.22), and the hosts had taken 18 shots, the joint-most Man Utd have faced in the first half of a Premier League fixture.

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

To be frank, that does not constitute a good performance. But there is ample evidence Ten Hag will plump for the same strategy regardless.

Ten Hag’s use of McTominay shows preparation for a repeat of the 4-6-0

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

These two have been playing alongside each other often in May, with Rasmus Hojlund dropped to the bench, suggesting Ten Hag is 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 defeat to Man City it was often more like a 4-6-0 or 6-4-0: Fernandes and McTominay dropped into the midfield line to cover for central midfielders Casemiro and Kobbie Mainoo, who sat even deeper as part of a man-marking effort on Man City’s charging No 8s.

This led to a wildly erratic shape, as Mainoo and Casemiro were pulled all over the place when tracking the runners.

Below, you can see the build-up to a near-open goal that Erling Haaland inexplicably missed in the first half, and shows how Casemiro’s tracking of Bernardo Silva left Rodri free.

Rodri v Man Utd

It happened again and again as United, incredibly deep and pinned in their own half, had their midfield stretched out of shape.

This time McTominay got tight to Rodri, creating an empty space for Phil Foden to stride into and score the equaliser.

Phil Foden goal v MUN
Kovacic is the key man for Man City

Ten Hag approached their last meeting like this because it had worked so well in the 2023 FA Cup final and in the league match before that, a 2-1 win for United at Old Trafford in January 2023.

On both occasions the man-marking in open play worked, for a time, and in the Premier League meeting in particular it shut down the middle of the pitch.

But that was predominantly because Man City struggled to build through Rodri, who was isolated in this match without a midfield partner alongside him.

This is a typical example of how City’s formation looked, and how easy it was for United to go man-to-man and push on.

Rodri isolated_

It was a similar story for Arsenal in their recent 1-0 win at Old Trafford when, faced with a midblock squeezing the centre, the combination of Thomas Partey and Takehiro Tomiyasu lacked the technical ability to feed passes through.

That wasn’t the case in the 3-1 win in March, however, because John Stones was played alongside Rodri - helping to assert dominance - while Foden, Silva, and Kevin De Bruyne all stayed narrow in the next line to receive passes and exploit the space.

One of the most important players on the pitch on Saturday, then, is Mateo Kovacic: Guardiola’s new go-to man to sit alongside Rodri, keep possession moving through the thirds, and pin the other team back.

If United can man-mark Kovacic and Rodri out of the game, they have a fighting chance of disrupting City’s flow.

Diallo and Garnacho will be expected to lead the charge on the counter

Should that happen, Man Utd will be able to compete centrally - and counter-attack.

It’s a simple idea - Amad Diallo and Alejandro Garnacho will make runs on the shoulder of the high line and Fernandes will look to find them.

United top the Premier League charts for direct attacks (102) and Fernandes is second in the division for successful through balls (30), reflecting Ten Hag’s dedication to this tactic.

And the introduction of Diallo has helped. He averages 5.35 attempted take-ons per 90 in the Premier League last season, which is more than any other Man Utd player to have started more than one match.

Guardiola doubling up out wide might hurt United full-backs

But even if the middle clogs up and United can counter, Man City still have the tools to beat Man Utd in the wide areas.

Back to the win in March, Man City pulled away in the second half once Guardiola repositioned Foden and De Bruyne out to the left, after substitutions left Willy Kambwala and Antony defending that flank.

It led directly to the second goal. Kambwala was drawn out by De Bruyne, leaving space for Foden and Julian Alvarez to play a one-two that set up Foden to score.

Foden 2-v Man Utd

Interestingly, this was not the first time it had happened in a Manchester derby.

Their 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 wingers in exactly the same way.

On this occasion, Jack Grealish and Silva doubled up on Diogo Dalot as Fernandes, starting on the right, struggled to get back.

Here, Haaland is given a big chance - again missed - by this combination play on the left.

Haaland chance_

In the second half, an almost identical doubling up led to the crucial second goal.

Haaland goal__

So, should Man Utd successfully block the middle without leaving gaps by over-tracking runners, and should their direct counter-attacks cause havoc behind Man City’s high line, they still need to hope their full-backs aren’t overwhelmed.

That is a lot to deal with. Man City are favourites for a reason.

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