Paul Merson is right - this is the only way Man Utd can beat Man City in frightening FA Cup final clash

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The Red Devils will face their bitter rivals at Wembley on Saturday afternoon

It is a do-or-die situation in which even if Erik ten Hag does, he may not survive. For a second year running, Manchester United will travel to Wembley this weekend to contest an FA Cup final against their noisiest of neighbours, Manchester City. Deja vu has never been so frightening.

Last time, United fell behind in a matter of seconds, clawed themselves back to parity, and then were hit with a knockout sucker punch from Ilkay Gundogan that, in retrospect, they have never truly steadied themselves after. The Red Devils recorded their lowest ever Premier League finish this season, and head to the capital in a state of general disorder, heavy favourites to lose and helmed by a manager who could quite easily be out of a job this time next week.

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By contrast, City are purring. Following a brief interlude of plastic jeopardy, Pep Guardiola’s silverware juggernaut strolled to a sixth league title in seven years last weekend, and look every inch double double winners elect. As precarious as things presently feel for the red half of Manchester, they are positively rosy just a few short miles away across the city.

Interestingly, the last time United finished lower than eighth, during their 1989/90 First Division campaign, they would go on to lift the FA Cup, beating Crystal Palace at the old Wembley and ultimately affording Sir Alex Ferguson enough of a stay of execution to fend off looming calls for his dismissal. How Ten Hag will be hoping for a similar reprieve, but it really does beg the question as to how his side can even begin to imagine going about beating a team who have bloodied their nose three times in the past twelve months by an aggregate score of 8-2.

Well, perhaps there are ways. Despite their dominance, this is a City side who do occasionally show uncharacteristic flashes of vulnerability. Compared to his other five title-winning squads, Guardiola’s men this season have conceded more goals, more shots, more shots on target, and kept a joint-low tally of clean sheets. They have also won just three out of 10 league clashes against the rest of the traditional big six - although two of those victories did come against United.

Ultimately, you suspect that the Red Devils’ chances of causing an upset on Saturday will come down to two key factors; shape and capitalisation. Any hopes of success are likely to hinge on United’s ability to overload the centre of the pitch and create numerical advantages in a compact midfield that disrupts the metronomic distribution of Rodri, Kevin de Bruyne, and whichever third man Guardiola opts to start alongside them.

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One way of doing this would be to post Bruno Fernandes out on the right flank, and allowing him to drift inside to form something of a central diamond with United’s double pivot and number 10 when the Red Devils are not in possession. Another would be to start the Portuguese playmaker as a false nine, as United have done on several occasions recently, and bringing an extra body into the engine room that way. The third would be to employ a more traditional 4-2-3-1, as Ten Hag did during United’s most recent win over City back in January of last year, and to really emphasise the need for solidity and defensive work rate before using the pace and physicality of their forward line - the likes of Marcus Rashford, Alejandro Garnacho, Rasmus Hojlund, and Amad Diallo - to exploit the spaces this would create behind Guardiola’s back four. In other words, sit low, counter at speed.

But all of this would then rely on a high quality of output from those entrusted with making a difference in the final third. Whether it be Rashford, Hojlund, Garnacho, Diallo or a combination of all four at various points throughout the final, United’s long ball outlets will need to be full of running and steeped in composure to make the most of those fleeting moments of opportunity if and when they do arrive. Wastefulness could cost Ten Hag’s men, just as much as inspiration could elevate them.

This is a detail emphasised by Sky Sports pundit Paul Merson. Looking ahead to the final earlier this week, the former Arsenal midfielder summed things up succinctly: ‘Man Utd have got to go and have a go. You do get your chances against Man City if you pick the right pass - don't get me wrong, you get opened up a lot too - but you do get your chances. They need their players to really have the games of their lives to win this football match.’

It is hard to disagree with him. For all of Ten Hag’s tactical machinations, the Dutchman can only take United so far against a team who so blatantly outclass them in most departments. If the Red Devils are to lift the FA Cup on Saturday, they will need both moments of magic and for every name in a red jersey to play out of their respective skins.

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