There is a particular class of achievements in English football that matter so profoundly because there is no other club that they have to be shared with, at least not in living memory. One can debate for years on end whether Manchester City's Centurions were superior to Arsenal's Invincibles, consensus will never emerge. Each fanbase clutches this particular team so tightly to its heart and understandably so. They are not for sharing.
That is the grim fear or the great opportunity that hangs over Manchester United going into Saturday's FA Cup final. They might always be the first treble (by which we mean the leading three trophies: Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League) winners in English football, how much sweeter would it be to be the only ones? Many of those who take to the Wembley field will have no memories of Teddy Sheringham's heroics and Peter Schmeichel cartwheels in the Camp Nou 24 years ago but they will surely comprehend the importance for their club of being the ones who stop City in their path. After all, their supporters wouldn't let them forget it.
Ten Hag might publicly claim that it is about what United can win, not what they can stop City getting -- but how could he say anything else? He must know the truth. Losing on Saturday would constitute an existential blow for his club if, as expected, Pep Guardiola overcomes Inter Milan a week later. It wouldn't just be that City have staked a claim to the treble that they own. It would be that United couldn't stop them from doing so.
Underpinning United's approach on Saturday will be the belief that they can. Indeed they have done so fairly frequently, winning four and drawing one of their last 10 meetings. Any opponent who can say it only loses 50 percent of the time to Guardiola's City can take a great deal of belief, not least because they beat them last time out, a thrilling 2-1 victory at Old Trafford that briefly raised hopes that the Red Devils might be able to compete with their crosstown rivals for the Premier League title.
"It's really enjoyable to watch Manchester City but we have to stop them," Ten Hag told the BBC ahead of Saturday. "We have to make it our game. We proved we can beat them but we have to play to our levels. If we have belief, on one day everything is possible."
That final sentence is perhaps as accurate a distillation as one could wish for of where Manchester United are a year into the Dutchman's project. They lack the cohesion of a team that has had years to establish themselves and they urgently need an injection of quality in at least two key positions, goalkeeper and center forward. However, in one-off games against the very best, they can deliver something remarkable, on occasion for worse but in thrilling wins against Barcelona, Arsenal and City, very much for the better.
There has been something about United in recent years that suits playing City. The Red Devils are a team that thrives in transition; no team registered more fast breaks in the 2022-23 Premier League than their 38. Given that it is no great surprise that they also ended the campaign with the most expected goals and actual goals from such passages of play. When Ten Hag's side (and indeed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's before him) win the ball back in advanced positions they are as capable as any team in the league of executing a string of quick passes that get one of their forwards bearing down on goal. That makes for a great matchup against a City side who, in the past, could all too frequently find that their vice-like grip on the contest had seen them shift almost their entire XI into the opposition third.
January's meeting between these two, a 2-1 win for the hosts at Old Trafford, might usually serve as the template for how United beat City: riding out the possession pressure, pouncing on sloppy mistakes and striking with precision. That much was apparent as early as the ninth minute when Bernardo Silva played a clumsy pass into no-man's land, Marcus Rashford stealing in and slipping a pass through to Bruno Fernandes, who would go on to drive wide of Ederson's far post.
United rode some of the City pressure effectively because of their man-to-man defensive system, Ten Hag's midfield tracking their counterparts as the Citizens pushed the ball out wide. It was from there that they were most effective at forcing turnovers, whether they be through a rare loose pass by Bernardo or driving their opponents into a pressing trap.
Perhaps most valuable of all to United, however, was the presence of Joao Cancelo in the City back four. The Portuguese international, now on loan at Bayern Munich, was an almighty weapon in Guardiola's possession arsenal but he was arguably a minus defender. Certainly, he was on this occasion, note in the image above that he is not even in shot.
In the build-up to United's equalizer, a contentious moment where Rashford was adjudged to not be offside because he did not touch a pass that was meant for him, Cancelo goes careening up the pitch in an attempt to steal the ball for City as Aaron Wan-Bissaka tries to play in Antony. There is nothing necessarily wrong with his instincts -- that is the way of playing that has won this team so much -- but when he can't get near the ball United find themselves with a four-on-three situation.
Wyscout's archives of United's January win has six goalscoring opportunities for the hosts. At least four might reasonably be considered to have come from direct transitional play. The problem for Ten Hag, however, is that opportunities like theirs may just be fewer and further between this time round against an opponent that is greatly changed from the one they beat last time out.
Cancelo is gone, in his place a defense that can contain as many as four central defenders (Kyle Walker might have spent most of his career as an overlapping right back but he has done a solid trade in more interior work for some time now). Rather than the Portuguese drifting into midfield, it tends to be John Stones stepping out of the heart of defense to partner alongside Rodri. The system looks the same in possession, a 3-2-5 or 3-2-2-3, but there is a rigidity to it in transitional moments that did not happen when the full backs inverted. Opponents naturally attempt to counter City down the flanks but in recent months they have gone flying toward elite one-on-one defenders in Walker, Manuel Akanji and Nathan Ake. The latter in particular has proven he can lock down the left flank on his own, he averages one lost challenge every 469 minutes, five full games and change.
This time around there are no dopes for United to rope. It is a sign of City's overwhelming quality of playing and coaching staff that midway through a season where they scarcely have a week off they can carry out a fairly significant reinvention of their defensive structure and not only not miss a beat but rise to even greater heights. They have become the sort of team that would be eminently worthy of winning the treble. It will be an almighty challenge for United to stop them.