Could Manchester United’s successful cup runs provide a blueprint for progress in years to come?

It’s fair to say that this season – up until about three weeks ago – was one to forget for fans of Manchester United’s senior teams. Both have sunk to their worst-ever league placing, looked as though they would not qualify for European football, and exited early from their league cup competitions.

Both managers, Erik ten Hag and Marc Skinner, have been under some serious scrutiny – not least the explosion of rumours on the eve of the men’s final that it would be the Dutchman’s last game at the helm. The similarities between the two teams have been almost uncanny, with fans constantly bemoaning the frustrating dropped points to teams lower down the table and the apparent lack of a tactical identity.

It’s a good thing, then, that – against any bookmaker’s odds – both sides were able to give their fans days to cherish at Wembley at the end of the season. Courtesy of four goals, one a particularly spectacular effort from Ella Toone, Skinner’s side lifted their maiden major trophy in front of a jubilant United end on 12th May.

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Two weeks later, Ten Hag’s team – derided, still smarting from a 4-0 loss to Crystal Palace, and up against holders and rivals Manchester City – shocked the Wembley crowd with a 2-1 victory as well. The feat made the club only the fourth team in the era of the Barclays Premier League and Women’s Super League to take home the men’s and women’s trophy in the same season – joining Arsenal, Chelsea, and City (Southampton also did that double in the 1970s), and it definitely wasn’t an achievement that onlookers expected.

Both teams were having a dire time in the league, and came up against bitter rivals (and the holders) in their journey to the Royal Box. Was it a case of twin flukes – or was it a teaser trailer for how both teams, under the new INEOS regime, can reach the top?

Marc Skinner and Erik ten Hag have both found themselves under particular pressure this season, with results far below what fans have come to expect. Skinner’s contract has now been renewed by the club for one year, with an option to extend for another, but Ten Hag’s future is far more uncertain. The day before the showdown at Wembley, The Guardian reported that his time at Old Trafford was over – regardless of the result of the final.

With Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s INEOS group having now taken control of football operations at the club and debates about the future of the stadium underway, the general mood around United has definitely been one of change and that has only been encouraged by the poor showings in the league. However, the season has taken on a different complexion with two more trophies added to the cabinet, and there’s an argument to be made for drawing up a plan based on those successes – not starting from scratch.

The journey to Wembley

Of course, cup runs will never be a full reflection of a team’s performance across a campaign – they’re a collection of one-off games, weeks apart, and carry the unique atmosphere and uniquely high stakes of knockout football. The point isn’t that the silverware United have collected makes their season a success – but rather that the fight, quality, and tactical nous they showed in their cup games show the potential for further triumphs under their current coaches and a new-look club hierarchy. 

Take the three (arguably) most impressive games of the two teams’ cup runs: the women’s semifinal victory over Chelsea, the men’s quarterfinal classic against Liverpool, and the defeat of City at Wembley. They’re teams that were expected by most to thump United and send them home with their tail between their legs – the women had never beaten Chelsea, Liverpool were on a crusade to give Jürgen Klopp a fitting farewell, and City, well, were City.

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Though the Blues had made their lives difficult in the league and fallen out of Europe, they ultimately came away with their fourth title in a row and were seeking to add another record by winning consecutive domestic doubles. United are hardly a plucky underdog team, but were definitely the side to bet against in all three fixtures – and yet they prevailed through a combination of traits the club sees as key to its DNA and a defensive grit they have lacked in the rest of the season.

Various pundits have scorned United’s lack of a clear tactical approach throughout the season, but the cup run showed that they do, in fact, have a game plan – not always be executed, but one does exist. The performances and results throughout most of the season have been poor to watch, but glimmers of the exciting, attacking way that United want to play have emerged – mostly in the cup run.

Particularly on the men’s side, an FA Cup final that was widely previewed as Ten Hag’s last dance turned out to be something of a manifesto.

A return to the United way?

Youth talent is woven into the United way, and was integral to the men’s success – Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo clinched the victory at Wembley, while Amad Diallo snatched the quarterfinal winner and Rasmus Højlund thundered home the penalty that booked United’s slot in the final.

Likewise, academy graduates were three of the five final goalscorers – Mainoo, Garnacho, and Ella Toone. That plays to the youthful, Red-born-and-bred identity that United fans love so much – perhaps sentimentally, but in this case they’ve been rewarded.

In the case of the men’s team, that can’t be separated from Erik ten Hag. At the time he was recruited, United highlighted the importance of his belief in youth development, and Mainoo is the prime example of a young talent who has flourished under his guidance.

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It’s an approach Marc Skinner might turn to as well, with an abundance of talent on the women’s youth side and five outfield players out of contract this summer but no renewals announced. There couldn’t be a better time to be recruiting from United’s academy, with the U21 women and U18 men both seeing incredibly successful seasons – perhaps the answer to at least part of United’s troubles is sat under their noses.

Much has been made of the importance of directness and attacking play, another quality United supporters demand from any team. The women scored 42 goals to last season’s 56, while the men’s goal difference finished in the negative for the first time in three decades. Counter-attacking play and directness would be cited by many as part of the ‘United way’, but the numbers don’t suggest it’s worked out for the most part this season – except in the cup run.

The two goals against Chelsea at Leigh Sports Village were almost-identical headers from crosses, no frills or fancy buildup, no waiting around for a ‘perfect’ opportunity. Similarly, the ‘transition team’ Ten Hag has cited his intention to create looked as much of a reality as it ever had in the cup final, with both goals originating in their own half and progressing quickly up the pitch to stun the City defence.

Followers of Skinner’s team have been frustrated at the downturn in goals this season – but in the final against Spurs, they showed just how ruthless they can be in front of goal, silencing their opposition with four (most notably Ella Toone’s thunderous opener). Of course, the caveat has to be that those opponents were far from their defensive best in those fixtures – but nonetheless, United showed how well they can attack and how much potential there is to build an exciting, direct-playing club that can compete at the highest level.

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The issues that the high press and rapid counter-attack create at the other end of the pitch have been the main case against that approach – too often this season, the creative attempts of Ten Hag’s forwards haven’t paid off and the whole team has been left out of shape and vulnerable. They conceded more than 80 goals in all competitions, their worst in a single campaign since the 1970s.

Likewise, the women’s team have been leaking goals all season – a stark contrast to last year’s stellar defensive record (this year saw them concede 20 more league goals than in 2022/23). It has felt at times like the defensive discipline has been lacking in both sides – but again, they overcame that in the cup run. The second half against Chelsea turned into a nerve-jangling siege as the Reds defended their narrow lead – but defend it they did, courtesy of some spectacular saves by Mary Earps and a show of grit and discipline that had perhaps been lacking in other fixtures.

The men’s final was a similar story; the introduction of Jeremy Doku was a challenge for Aaron Wan-Bissaka, but again the defence held off City’s nonstop attacks and avoided the kind of floodgate opening seen in their semi-final against Coventry City. 

Where next?

Obviously the cup runs have also featured the flaws that have been prevalent through the whole campaign, and luck has helped United out. Skinner’s side had to rely on a late Rachel Williams double to get them past Southampton, and the second-half capitulation to Coventry in the men’s semi-final (including a much-debated disallowed goal for their opponents) left many fans dreading their next trip to Wembley.

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Knockout competitions will usually take a little bit of luck, and this year was no exception – but on the whole, they’ve shown enough potential and put in enough quality performances to make them deserving champions. The question is, why? If both United teams can stifle the strongest teams in their divisions, launch counter attacks that leave the best defenders stunned, and stick out game plans for 90+ gruelling minutes, why have we not seen it more often – say, in the league?

That is what INEOS will be seeking to answer, and the burning question right now is whether they think Erik ten Hag is the man to do it. Potentially, the stakes in each game could have an influence – maybe the do-or-die nature of cup football is what has brought the best out of the players, in which case the issue might be one of culture. Bringing that winning expectation to every match, not just the knockouts, could be part of lifting the standards at United.

Maybe Ratcliffe’s influence will help with this, particularly with both senior managers having at best only a year to prove they deserve to keep their jobs. The issue of personnel is also pertinent, particularly considering the number of unrenewed contracts on the women’s side and the amount of injury-prone players on the men’s; this is where the youth pathway could prove crucial, especially as Ratcliffe has been clear about his intention to cut costs.

There is a fine balance to be struck between backing the managers with investment and avoiding wasteful transfers, and drawing on a promising academy cohort could help with this while simultaneously providing the players that can keep up with the attacking football fans want to see.

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Granted, the last ten years have seen a lot of fabled ‘turning points’ – but could this be a watershed moment for United? The mood in the fanbase appears to be positive, with polls seeming supportive of the direction of the team under Ten Hag. On the women’s side, though there is justified apprehension about the contract situation over the summer and the inconsistency in the league, the fact they have finally got their hands on a major trophy cannot be overlooked and should be used as a springboard for the new campaign.

The next season is a chance for the new regime to show what they are made of, and this year – while incredibly disappointing in the league – is a starting point. The best and worst of both teams have been on display, and while INEOS have a mammoth task on their hands, perhaps it’s not time to throw away Erik ten Hag’s playbook just yet.

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