In an FA Cup final, dominated by rivalry, the main thoughts on Erik Ten Hag's mind will be how he can stop Manchester City's talisman Erling Haaland.
In order to have the best possible chance of winning this game, Manchester United will have to have a plan to prevent Haaland producing a display similar to his performance against United earlier in the season, beating them 6-3 at the Etihad.
However it is also key to note, after that 6-3 result, United beat City 2-1 at Old Trafford and were able to keep Haaland at bay.
Haaland success against Manchester United (6-3 win):
In this game, Haaland was a threat from every angle for Manchester United. He bullied defenders, won aerial duels, made runs that had United defenders scrambling and of course scored a hat-trick.
(Figure 1) (Sky Sports Premier League YouTube)
In figure 1, you can see an example of where Haaland wants to operate. He thrives off of scoring goals and does not care how they come. Lurking at the back post, making darting runs to the front post and challenging defenders in the air.
In this example Haaland came from the far post, peeled off the back of Lisandro Martinez and simply slotted it past David De Gea. Haaland is extremely prolific in the box, and will score more often than not, when given the chance.
(Figure 2) (Sky Sports Premier League YouTube)
Here is another example of Haaland's positioning and instinct to make a run at the back post. This was for his second goal of the game, where he perfectly occupied a position between Raphael Varane and Diogo Dalot, allowing him to run on the blindside of Varane and get on the end of Kevin De Bruyne's perfectly weighted cross.
The Norwegian striker's ability to ghost inside the box and score with all types of finishes makes him a nightmare for defenders, but in the reverse fixture, Ten Hag and his men were able to keep Haaland quiet as they achieved a 2-1 win.
How have United stopped Haaland before:
(Figure 3) (Team from Sofa Score)
In figure 3, you can see the two different lineups United fielded against City. The lineup on the left is from their 6-3 defeat earlier in the season, and the lineup on the right is from their 2-1 win more recently.
Their inclusion in the second game (2-1 win) was a big difference that contributed to the success of that result, as well as the disappointment of the 6-3 loss earlier in the season where both were absent.
(Figure 4) (Average positions from Sofa Score)
In figure 4, you can see the difference in Haaland's average positions in both games. The image on the left represents his average position from the 6-3 win, and the right image represents his average position from the 2-1 loss.
The key thing to note here was the amount of touches Haaland was able to get inside the United 18 yard box and penalty area in the 6-3 win at the Etihad.
However at Old Trafford in the 2-1 loss, Haaland was unable to get the touches he desired in the United box in order to create chances for himself. This ultimately led to Haaland becoming frustrated and seeking deeper touches on the ball.
This was caused by the changes Ten Hag made in the second game, to better deal with Haaland and frustrate Manchester City.
(Figure 5) (Manchester City YouTube)
As you can see in figure 5, Manchester United decided to attach a man to Haaland at all times. This example shows Varane tracking Haaland into the midfield from the defensive line, and forcing him to receive the ball with his back to goal.
United aimed to force Haaland and Manchester City to play in front of them, not allowing Haaland to make blind side runs or get touches in the box. This was seen on numerous occasions from both Varane and Shaw (who did a stellar job on Haaland playing centre back this game), as well as Casemiro and Fred who would act as the second man attaching to Haaland as can be seen in figure 5.
How can United stop Haaland AGAIN:
To stop Haaland again will be very difficult, especially now that Haaland has come up against this version of United and can now adapt to the way he was being defended.
Haaland has also adapted since this game at Old Trafford playing in these areas when dropping to receive the ball, and Pep Guardiola has used this in recent big fixtures such as the first leg of the Champions League semi final against Real Madrid.
(Figure 6) (Average positions from Sofa Score)
As you can see in figure 6, Haaland was picking up lots of different areas against Real Madrid, with De Bruyne being more advanced running beyond Haaland when he dropped in.
City used the gravity of Haaland and the players he dragged with him to create space in behind for De Bruyne to exploit. This worked really well against Real Madrid, leaving a lot of space to operate for De Bruyne and co.
This adds another dimension for Manchester United to think about when devising a game plan for dealing with Haaland come the 3rd of June at Wembley.
Taking all three games spoken about into account, we could see Ten Hag switch it up again and use a different tactic to deal with Haaland.
In order to cut the space in behind for Haaland and force him to play with his back to goal, Ten Hag will probably want to have a similar approach of attaching a man to Haaland at all times. However rather than the centre-backs having the job of following Haaland from the defensive line into the middle, Casemiro could be tasked with attaching to Haaland and playing a half back role for this game.
This would allow the two other centre backs for United to cut the space in behind to stop De Bruyne and the other City midfielders running beyond Haaland, whilst also forcing Haaland to play with his back to goal.