Manchester City – Manchester United: Gündoğan’s Goals Secure FA Cup Win (2-1)
Erik Ten Hag set out with an adjustment to United’s pressing shape to try and neutralize City’s 3-2-4-1 system. This was moderately successful, however two quality strikes from İlkay Gündoğan gave City the goals they needed to overcome United and take home the FA Cup.
Tactical analysis and match report by Josh Manley.
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Manchester City arrived at Wembley looking to continue on their quest for the treble. Pep Guardiola lined his side up in a nominal 4-2-3-1 shape, with a back line of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Rúben Dias, and Manuel Akanji. Rodri and İlkay Gündoğan started in central midfield, with Kevin De Bruyne at number ten. Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish were then the wingers either side of Erling Haaland.
In the first ever Manchester Derby FA Cup Final, Manchester United were tasked with trying to ensure that they remain the only English club to have completed the treble. Erik ten Hag’s side played from a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Raphaël Varane, Victor Lindelöf, and Luke Shaw in the back four. Fred started in central midfield alongside Casemiro, while Bruno Fernandes started wide on the right to allow Christian Eriksen to play as the number ten. Jadon Sancho started from the left, with Marcus Rashford up front.
Ten Hag’s defensive scheme
The game started in the worst way possible for United, as Gündoğan’s stunning volley from outside the box became the fastest goal ever scored in an FA Cup Final. United had set out with a strategy for neutralizing City’s setup, and were undone from a simple long ball in the first twenty seconds, where the defending for the second ball was perhaps not ideal.
In terms of Ten Hag’s actual set up, the idea was clearly to try and prevent City from controlling the game from the number six area where Rodri and Stones operate in their 3-2-4-1 system. In attempting to do this, United were essentially defending in a 4-2-4-0 shape, where consistent pressure on City’s back three was sacrificed so that Eriksen and Rashford could cover Rodri and Stones.
United did attempt to jump up to pressure the back three at times, but this needed to be done carefully so as not to get bypassed and leave City with a free man in midfield. In order to further condense the space in this area, Fernandes and Sancho would stay fairly narrow around the halfspaces. From there, they could either help the pressing by attacking City’s side center-backs, or provide extra cover behind Eriksen or Rashford when they jumped up to press.
Ten Hag attempted to prevent City playing through the second line of buildup and control the halfspaces. However, the gap between Casemiro and Fred sometimes became a weakness.
Behind United’s four attackers, Casemiro and Fred were tasked with marking De Bruyne and Gündoğan in the halfspaces. This is likely a large reason why Fred was picked in the lineup rather than having someone like Eriksen deep, as Fred’s energy and tenacity was required for this demanding role against De Bruyne where he would need to cover a lot of ground and win duels.
With Casemiro and Fred being dragged into wider and deeper areas by Gündoğan and De Bruyne, United sometimes struggled to control the central space that developed between them. City could occupy these spaces dynamically, often through the likes of Stones or Rodri breaking forward from the second line.
Eriksen in particular struggled defensively, as he already has on some occasions this season. Stones had the advantage in terms of physicality, and Erisken was unable to keep up with him, being quite easily bypassed and weakening United’s pressing.
Despite this, Ten Hag’s plan was overall fairly decent, both in terms of concept and execution. The idea to stay compact around City’s second line of buildup was a good one, and helped stem the flow. United having these four attacking players in close proximity without the ball offered some interesting possibilities in attacking transition too. Their proximity meant that they could combine quickly in trying to overcome City’s counterpressing, with plenty of connections around the ball. The main aim would then be to set Rashford free in behind, but the athleticism of City’s backline makes attacking depth quite difficult.
An open second half
United were competing well enough, but City had kept the game mostly under control for much of the first half. United were able to make some fortune go their way though, as a cross to the back post was inadvertently handled by Grealish, and Fernandes calmly scored the resulting penalty to make it 1-1.
Five minutes into the second half though, United went behind again. It was another well-struck volley from Gündoğan outside the box, helped along its way by some very suspect goalkeeping from David De Gea.
De Gea was unfortunately a source of United’s problems in possession too during this game. His discomfort with playing out from the back forced United to go long and have shorter possession phases against City’s high pressing.
There is nothing wrong with playing long. In fact, it can be a primary means of progression if a team is set up well for it. However, in this case, United did not have the players to compete for these long balls against City’s physical defensive core of Walker, Dias, Akanji, Stones, and Rodri. The long balls were also often not particularly well placed to give United’s forwards a chance of fighting for them.
When United had the ball, Fred would sometimes drift into more advanced areas, with Casemiro as the deepest midfielder. Wan-Bissaka provided much of the width on the right, as Fernandes moved into central midfield areas to get on the ball.
United’s attack took quite a narrow stance, leaving the width for the fullbacks.
When pressing high, City would often stay close to the 3-2-4-1 structure they used in possession. When forced deeper, they would retreat into a 4-4-2 shape, where Stones went back to the defensive line, Gündoğan played alongside Rodri in the center and De Bruyne played off Haaland up front.
Ten Hag was the first manager to make a substitute, bringing Alejandro Garnacho on for Eriksen in order to add another dribbling threat to the attack. Garnacho played from the left, while Sancho moved over to the right and Fernandes into the number ten role.
The game became more open in the final half an hour or so, as United were forced to take more risks on both sides of the ball, which opened more spaces for City. Both teams then had more transitional moments.
More changes followed from both teams, as Guardiola replaced De Bruyne with Phil Foden, and Ten Hag brought Wout Weghorst on for Sancho, hoping to increase the set-piece threat which looked one of United’s most viable ways of scoring.
Going into the last ten minutes, Ten Hag made a last roll of the dice by changing to a 3-3-1-3 system. He removed Lindelöf and brought on McTominay. Varane was then flanked by Wan-Bissaka and Shaw at the back. With the fullbacks still joining attacks, Varane effectively played one-versus-one against Haaland. McTominay, Casemiro and Fred were the midfield three, behind a front four of Fernandes, Rashford, Weghorst and Garnacho. United did have chances, including a McTominay header from very close range, but were ultimately unable to get the goal they needed.
City were in control for large portions of the game, although perhaps not quite at their best. Gündoğan’s individual quality made the decisive difference in the end. Stones also gave an excellent performance in his hybrid role. One of the most notable things about this iteration of City is their physicality, and it showed today when United tried to play direct. This version of City is a team full of quick, strong, and tall players who can cover ground and win duels better than most opponents. This has not been the image of Guardiola teams in the past, but it is the foundation on which the rest of their play is built at the moment.
United played a decent game in the circumstances. Ten Hag’s defensive scheme had some issues but overall was a smart enough attempt at dealing with this City system. The outlook for United basically hinges on recruitment over the summer, with quality additions in goal, in central midfield, and at center-forward being essential for this team to have a chance of realizing the potential shown this season.
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