Nobody can deny Erik Ten Hag has made a difference since arriving at Manchester United. This time 12 months ago, the Old Trafford club was in disarray. They needed a new manager to point them in the right direction again.
Ten Hag has certainly done that, guiding United to a third-place Premier League finish, Carabao Cup glory and an FA Cup final.
No matter what happens against Manchester City at Wembley this weekend, United have made significant strides forward. The building blocks are in place. Manchester United have a clear identity and strategy again. However, the upcoming FA Cup final presents Ten Hag with an opportunity to set up his team for even greater progress next season.
City have established a new precedent at the top of the English game. They have won three straight Premier League titles (five in the last six seasons). Even in a season where Arsenal achieved an historic tally of points in the first half of the campaign, Pep Guardiola’s team were able to reel them in and finish top of the pile once more.
Saturday’s FA Cup final could be the second leg of an historic Treble for Manchester City, with the Premier League title already in the bag and a Champions League final against Inter still to look forward to. The way City are playing at the moment, it would be foolish to bet against them finishing the season with three trophies in-hand.
United, however, have already beaten City once this season – back in January when Marcus Rashford scored a late winner in a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford. They have players capable of hurting the Premier League champions and Ten Hag is one of the few managers out there who can hold his own against Guardiola.
There will be space in behind the Manchester City backline to exploit in quick transition. Brentford demonstrated this in their 1-0 win over the Etihad Stadium side on the final day of the Premier League season. The likes of Rashford, Alejandro Garnacho, Bruno Fernandes and Jadon Sancho will be a threat.
Ten Hag will need a plan on how to handle the number of creative players Manchester City typically push into the attacking third of the pitch. Casemiro can’t handle Kevin de Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva and Jack Grealish all on his own – the Brazilian midfielder will need help in central midfield otherwise United’s defence will be overwhelmed.
Manchester City’s pressing game out of possession could also make it difficult for United to play out from the back, particularly with Lisandro Martinez sidelined through injury for the match. Ten Hag’s team must be sharp on the ball and make quick decisions when under pressure. They have to play through Manchester City.
A lot of things have to go right for United to win Saturday’s FA Cup final, but things have been going right for them in general this season. Not everything, but the difference in Manchester United between now and the start of the season – when they suffered defeats to Brighton and Brentford – is stark.
“We have seen it before the season, after the start of the season, and then where we came from – we are happy, we are in the right direction, but satisfied? No, we are not,” said Ten Hag ahead of the clash with City. “We have to do better, that’s always the case. We have a foundation, we have a good base. But we have to do better. This season, we still have one game to go and it’s a great opportunity to make the next big step.”
It might not be realistic for United to target leapfrogging City next season, but they can certainly close the gap on them. Ten Hag has a number of key positions to strengthen over the summer with a new number nine a particular necessity. Harry Kane, Victor Osimhen and Randal Kolo Muani have all been linked with a move to Old Trafford.
Midfield additions might also be required before the start of next season with Chelsea’s Mason Mount believed to be on Manchester United’s radar. Kim Min-jae could also be on his way to Manchester as Ten Hag looks to build squad depth beyond Martinez and Raphael Varane as his first-choice centre back pairing.
Glory in Saturday’s FA Cup final wouldn’t necessarily mean Manchester United’s trajectory will continue upward next season, but it would be a symbol of how the club is finally making the right moves and the right decisions. A third-place finish and two trophies in-hand would be proof of this.