Manchester United are huge outsiders for Saturday’s FA Cup final against Manchester City, but they aren’t completely without hope.

With the Premier League done and dusted for another season, English football will turn its attention to the FA Cup final on Saturday.

In the blue corner, Manchester City will be looking to continue their dominance of the domestic game after winning each of the past four Premier League titles and also last season’s FA Cup. In the red corner, Manchester United hope lifting some silverware can go some way towards offsetting a hugely underwhelming league campaign that saw them record their lowest final position (eighth) since 1989-90 (13th).

The odds are stacked heavily in City’s favour, with them winning this game inside 90 minutes in 68% of the Opta supercomputer’s 10,000 pre-match simulations, compared to 14.4% for United.

So, what strands of hope can United cling to ahead of Saturday’s Wembley showdown?

A Proper Centre-Back Partnership

Many of Erik ten Hag’s critics will point out that he’s not helped himself at times this season, particularly in terms of failing to address some of United’s glaring tactical weaknesses.

But at the same time, their struggles aren’t entirely on him. Injuries can be a bit of a cop out of an excuse because every team has them, but not many go through what United have had to contend with this term at centre-back.

“Our centre half position was a nightmare across the season,” Ten Hag said a few weeks ago. “If you want results, one of the foundations of a good team is a partnership of good centre-halves and we didn’t have [that].”

They named 15 different player combinations at centre-back in the Premier League over the course of 2023-24, more than any other team that predominantly play with two central defenders.

Their most-used pairing was Raphaël Varane – who’s spent a lot of time out injured himself – and Jonny Evans, the 35-year-old they initially only signed on a short-term deal to feature in pre-season friendlies after being reduced to a back-up role in a Leicester City side who were relegated in 2022-23.

Even then, those two only started together six times in the league – extended to all competitions, no United pairing started more than seven games in tandem.

Manchester United centre-backs
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Compare that to Arsenal, for example, who named only four different centre-back partnerships in the Premier League and were able to name William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhães together 34 times.

But United are potentially through the worst of it just in time for… the summer break. Indeed, the timing isn’t great, but getting Lisandro Martínez and Varane – set to play his last game for the club – back in time for the final is undoubtedly a boost.

Martínez started for only the eighth league game this season in last weekend’s 2-0 win at Brighton, and Varane came on in the second half at the Amex Stadium.

Not only will United seemingly have their strongest centre-back partnership available, but their returns should also coincide with Casemiro featuring in his best position in midfield. Admittedly, the former Real Madrid man has regularly looked off the pace even in midfield this season, but he’s clearly not been helped by how open the team is; against City, they’ll surely be much tighter.

Furthermore, since the start of last season, United have won 69% of the games (all competitions) in which Martínez, Varane and Casemiro have all played compared to 53.6% when at least one doesn’t. As a trio, they do improve the team and United need all the help they can get.

Winning A Double-Double Is Hard

There have been historic achievements aplenty for Manchester City since Pep Guardiola’s arrival in 2017, with one of the most impressive clinched last weekend.

By beating West Ham 3-1 and lifting the Premier League trophy last Sunday, City became the first men’s team ever to win the English top flight four seasons in a row.

It’s a record that puts the quality of this City side into historical context, and they have another English football first in sight this weekend.

Having won back-to-back Premier League titles and also the FA Cup last season, City are plotting to be the first club ever to win the league and FA Cup double in successive campaigns.

No one has ever won this particular double-double in English men’s football – there’s obviously a reason for that.

Winning both competitions in consecutive campaigns is incredibly hard. We’ve seen many great teams down the years, and yet none have managed to achieve this.

Similarly, it’s a one-off game; anything can happen. United have had a difficult season, of course, and already lost twice to City. But let’s not forget, Ten Hag has beaten Guardiola since he made the move to Old Trafford in 2022. If he’s done it once, he can do it again.

In fact, United could do worse than follow the blueprint of that 2-1 win in January 2023. Admittedly, they were helped by a controversial decision to allow Bruno Fernandes’ equaliser, but they looked a real threat with runners in behind and there’s no reason why they couldn’t be again on Saturday.

Man Utd vs Man City Premier League January 2023 xG map

We also shouldn’t look at this United side as a group of hopeless amateurs. They have World Cup winners, frequent Champions League winners, one of the best Premier League players over the past four years in Fernandes, and three of English football’s most promising young players in Kobbie Mainoo, Alejandro Garnacho and Rasmus Højlund.

United head into the final with little pressure as all the expectation is on City despite the rarity of the achievement they’re chasing.

But whether they have the belief and discipline to make life uncomfortable for City remains to be seen.

FA Cup Finals Are (Nearly) Always Tight

No one is doubting City’s credentials as favourites for this. The gulf between these two teams arguably hasn’t been greater since City’s takeover in 2008 and a United win would be a huge surprise.

In fact, anything other than a comfortable City victory would be seen as something of a shock by many.

But the thing is, FA Cup finals rarely end in one-sided thrashings.

Since the turn of the century, only four FA Cup finals have been settled by two or more goals. Seventeen have been determined by a single goal and three have ultimately gone all the way to penalties.

City do account for one of those heavy FA Cup final wins. They crushed Watford 6-0 in the 2019 showpiece, though United will expect to put up a far greater fight than the Hornets, with all due respect to them.

Man City vs Watford FA Cup final xG race

Four years earlier, Arsenal comfortably defeated Aston Villa 4-0 at Wembley, though this was a Villa side that struggled all season and only narrowly avoided relegation – they weren’t so fortunate the season after.

Before that, you had to go back as far as 2003-04 to find an FA Cup final in which more than one goal separated the two teams. Man Utd were 3-0 victors on that occasion at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, though their opponents, Millwall, were second-tier opposition so again that encounter comes with something of a caveat.

The only other instance of a team winning an FA Cup final by more than one goal this century was in 2001-02, when Arsenal defeated Chelsea 2-0.

For what it’s worth, United also have a good recent record against City in this competition, winning five of their last seven FA Cup meetings. They did lose in last season’s final, of course, though it was hardly a hammering as Guardiola’s men won 2-1.

Man City v Man Utd 2023 FA Cup final xG map

Nevertheless, the point remains; few will give United much hope heading into this, but they have players at their disposal who can trouble anyone.

Manchester United have overcome greater odds before.

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