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Talking Tactics: How Mourinho's Man Utd can lift the FA Cup

This year's FA Cup final is a peculiar one. Both Manchester United and Chelsea are perceived to have underperformed this season, so much so that lifting the trophy on Saturday evening won't be enough to redeem either Jose Mourinho or Antonio Conte.

United's early Champions League exit and constipated football in the Premier League will be remembered far more vividly than a second FA Cup in three years (mimicking how Louis van Gaal's triumph in this competition is scarcely recalled), while Conte and Chelsea are set to part ways regardless of the result.

Don't expect a classic. Both coaches tend towards caution in these games and, on the wide Wembley pitch, the goal for Chelsea and United will be to suffocate, frustrate, and grab a narrow victory.

Psychology will be a big factor in the FA Cup final, which is why United hold a slender advantage; Chelsea's latest project is on the wane, potentially distracting their players, while Mourinho is still very much the boss at Man Utd.

Here are four ways in which United can beat Chelsea to win the FA Cup:



1) Use a "midfield square" and front two

When the two sides met at Old Trafford this season Jose Mourinho unexpectedly used a 4-4-2 diamond formation that he dubbed a "midfield square", with Alexis Sanchez in the hole behind Anthony Martial and Romelu Lukaku.

Although this formation did leave them light in central midfield (Willian and Eden Hazard had far too much room as inside forwards) and too narrow to fully cope with Chelsea's marauding wing-backs (Victor Moses isolated Ashley Young on several occasions), ultimately the gamble paid off.

Chelsea's two-man midfield didn't cope well with Sanchez, Lukaku, and Martial, who linked in neat passing triangles on the counter-attack - leading directly to both United goals in a 2-1 win.

Fielding two strikers also meant Chelsea's back three were caught in awkward starting positions; Martial and Lukaku could sit in the two holes either side of the central-most defender, making runs that split open the back line. Ahead of the first goal, Paul Pogba swapped positions with Lukaku when the Belgian dropped off, but the result was the same:




2) Man-mark Hazard

Chelsea will probably use a 3-5-1-1 formation that heaps pressure on Eden Hazard to wriggle free in a false nine role.

This means all Mourinho has to do is limit the Belgian's time on the ball and he should, with help from a cautious back four, keep Chelsea quiet.

In April 2017 Ander Herrera famously man-marked Hazard, following him around the pitch and restricting the 27-year-old to one key pass and zero successful dribbles as United won 2-0 at Old Trafford.

Mourinho hasn't repeated this tactic with quite so much consistency since, perhaps because Conte responded by ensuring he fields two inside forwards in subsequent contests, making it harder to isolate Hazard.

However, Chelsea's formation over the last few weeks suggests the Italian is preparing to use a 3-5-1-1, and so another man-marking job should be successful.



3) Target Bakayoko by setting pressing traps

Chelsea's Tiemoue Bakayoko has found his way back into the first team after a dreadful debut season in which the Frenchman has made a litany of costly errors and struggled to cope with the speed of the Premier League.

He is highly likely to start on Saturday as part of Chelsea's defence-minded 3-5-1-1 formation, which means United have an easy target in the middle.

Bakayoko's most consistent flaw is a poor first touch, allowing opposition midfielders to close him down and win possession. This happened most famously in a 4-1 defeat against Watford, when the 23-year-old received two yellow cards in 30 minutes as he repeatedly scrambled to avoid losing the ball:



He has been more consistent since returning to the side in mid-April, although it was Bakayoko's dreadful clearance that led directly to Newcastle's second goal in the 3-0 defeat last weekend.

He is probably feeling fragile again, meaning Mourinho can set some traps – by leaving him free to collect a pass, before Sanchez and Jesse Lingard suddenly pincer press the Frenchman. It is United's best counter-attacking route to goal.




4) Limit Chelsea's crossing with deep-lying full-backs

As the efficacy of Conte's tactical system wanes, there is increasing pressure on the wing-backs to provide crosses for Olivier Giroud as a route to goal (mostly because opponents have worked out how to stay narrow and compact, reducing the impact of those dual inside forwards). This is why Chelsea lead the way in the Premier League for headed goals, with 15.

The simplest way to reduce the influence of Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, who attempt 6.1 crosses per match between them, is to keep a flat back four at all times. Mourinho will most likely tell Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia to hold back, rarely venturing into the Chelsea half in order to ensure their direct opponents cannot get behind them.

The tussle for the flanks will be a crucial one; it would be a surprise if Mourinho – a defensive genius and superb at controlling cup finals – doesn't come out on top.

Alex Keble
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Alex Keble

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