Manchester United now have one aim for the season: Stop Man City

United are the only English club to have won the treble and may have the best chance of stopping their city rivals matching the feat

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Monday 24 April 2023 14:30 BST
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Erik ten Hag says Man United will 'give everything' to reward fans with second trophy in FA Cup final

After Manchester United had laboured and battled to an FA Cup semi-final shoot-out victory over Brighton, Erik ten Hag was asked about the possibility of having to stop Manchester City doing the treble. The Dutch coach had initially talked about wanting to win every game and only focusing on themselves but, when inevitably pressed on the importance of United being the only club to win the treble, he insisted his team were determined to protect their proud record. Especially when City are the opposition.

“We will give everything and, when I say everything, it’s everything… the fans can rely on that,’’ he declared. “We want to give that against City. We want to go and give the fans that.”

These are necessarily stirring words, that any manager would say, but they aren’t empty words. The performance against Brighton illustrated that, even if it wasn’t the most illustrious football.

You only have to consider the circumstances. Despite the obvious resource gaps between the clubs, United had their own disadvantages here, and this could have been one of the most dismal weeks in the club’s recent history.

Ten Hag went into this game with three centre-backs missing, a left-back short of fitness at centre-back, two strikers short of fitness and the recently injured Christian Eriksen playing his third game in a week. The manager admitted that may have contributed to the Europa League elimination to Sevilla, which he described as “the worst game of the season”. That is saying something given it has also involved a 7-0 defeat to Liverpool, but it could well have preceded a brutally brief period where they also went out of the FA Cup, fell out of the top four and on Friday could yet see the unpopular Glazer owners confirm they are staying at the club.

That is of course speculation from the mood of the takeover, but it is the great fear, as the United support again made clear at Wembley. It may yet happen but the cascade of on-pitch catastrophes hasn’t. United are in their 21st FA Cup final, and surely have a new emotional momentum ahead of a crunch game with a Tottenham Hotspur, who are falling apart.

That is from a real resilience that Ten Hag has instilled in this team.

Victor Lindelof netted the decisive penalty as Man Utd battled into the FA Cup final (AP)

His squad have had at least four awful defeats that could well have killed development, and maybe their season - the sort of results that are difficult to recover from.

They have instead developed a capacity to bounce back from disasters. This was emphasised by individual cases, as David de Gea recovered from Thursday, and both Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho scored shoot-out penalties on the same pitch they missed on in the Euro 2020 final for England.

As Ten Hag explained: “David played a great game, in and out of possession, he made some great saves. He’s done that so often this season, great saves. We have the most clean sheets in the Premier League, today a clean sheet as well, because we were so determined, we were fighting for it, we were organised.

“They had chances, we had our chances as well on the transition and in direct play and we’re happy with that.

“From Rashy and Jadon about penalties, we knew that, but we knew also they’re comfortable on penalties. They dealt with it, it’s a time ago, but they are so calm and composed in training with penalties. I know this is a different occasion but I think it’s great they had this experience now and I think it will help them for the future.”

United, as a team, have become very good at immediately making bad results history. Since the disastrous back-to-back losses against Brighton and Brentford to open the campaign, the Red Devils have followed every defeat this season with a victory. Ten Hag praised his players for this, as he spoke of how bad the Sevilla game was.

“It was not us. I don’t know what happened, I focus on this game, it’s such a short time to prepare this, get this done. It was the worst game of the season we played in Seville. We have to go through what happened, we can’t change it any more, all we can do is take lessons for the future. What we can improve is we can deal with setbacks between games, now we have to bounce back in a game in difficult situations or occasions or away stadiums, we have to show personality, carry on, stick to the plan and turn around. If we play a bad game, there were opportunities on Thursday to bounce back and get back into that game. If you can fight three days after a defeat, you can do it in a game.”

That is what fires Ten Hag’s view that his players will give everything to stop City’s treble, as United go for the double.

United’s focus now turns to denying their city rivals the treble (The FA via Getty Images)

A bigger question, however, is whether the team have the stamina to play better. The manager admitted that they are not at the same level they were in January-February, a period of the season when we probably saw the closest yet to Ten Hag’s ideal. United were defensively robust but with a dynamic attack that could go at ferocious speeds. They have slowed considerably since then, the number of games and general rigours of the season clearly getting to them.

That can be seen in the number of players out.

Now, however, United almost have a clear run until the final. They are out of Europe, so only have the league to concentrate on, just as City face potentially era-defining fixtures against Real Madrid. Ten Hag will have crucial time on the training ground, for the first time in almost half a season. That can make a considerable difference in itself, given how little he has been able to actually coach amid such a full fixture list.

It all means the complexion can quickly change over the course of such a month, as Ten Hag knows too well.

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