How Ten Hag inspired FA Cup win: Al Pacino team talk, memories of Afghanistan and a 10-day tactical plan


Erik ten Hag was in his own personal version of the trenches, figuring out how to battle back against bad results, when he walked Carrington with a female member of Manchester United’s security personnel. He asked his colleague about her own experiences, and she explained her background in the British military, including an assignment in Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

In the week leading up to the FA Cup final against Manchester City, Ten Hag found himself recalling this conversation as he searched for novel ways to inspire a performance from his team. The backdrop was a difficult season in which United finished the Premier League campaign in eighth position and were knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage. The FA Cup final against Pep Guardiola’s imperious City represented an opportunity for redemption for his beleaguered side, and Ten Hag may have been hoping for a dose of salvation when it came to his position as manager of United.

And so Ten Hag became inventive. He asked United’s security staffer to record a video for his team, which was shown to the players at the Marriott Hotel in London in the lead-up to the final. The Dutchman was so moved by his colleague’s story that he reserved the video for his final team meeting with the squad before they left for Wembley on Saturday morning.

In the video, the United security officer explained how one day in Afghanistan, she became trapped in a village with her platoon. Outnumbered, nobody thought they had a chance of escaping the threat before them. But, she explained, they worked together, and many fought their way out. Sadly, however, a small number of her colleagues died along the way, but in representing their country, they had sacrificed their own lives to valiantly save villagers.

She was emotional as she spoke, and it represented powerful messaging that resonated strongly with United’s players; stick together, back each other up, stay on the front foot and fight to win. The video of the security personnel telling her story intermingled with images of United players winning duels during games, increasing the relevance to their own against-all-odds mission before them.

She was not present in the room when the video played, but an indication of the impact it had came after the game when the players learned that she had been guarding the directors’ box at Wembley during the final, where owners Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Avram Glazer were seated, as well as club legend Sir Alex Ferguson and the future King of the United Kingdom, Prince William. United’s players invited her down to the dressing room, where they thanked her for the video, with some telling her she had helped inspire them.


(Michael Regan – The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

The video, of course, was only one part of Ten Hag’s strategy, which had in fact started 10 days before the final as he trialled a new tactical setup in United’s 3-2 victory against Newcastle United at Old Trafford. In doing so, he dropped Rasmus Hojlund, the club’s only fit recognised striker, to the substitutes’ bench, and stiffened up the centre of the pitch by playing Sofyan Amrabat alongside a more restrained Kobbie Mainoo, as well as Bruno Fernandes and Scott McTominay in flexible midfield roles that doubled up as false nines.

United won that game and then replicated the system for the 2-0 win at Brighton on the final day of the season. The performance at Brighton was imperfect but Ten Hag had been convinced by its merits as a way to combat Guardiola’s City, who had just sealed a fourth Premier League title in a row. Those wins also meant Ten Hag gained buy-in from the players over the unorthodox formation, which was akin to a compact 4-2-4 shape.

While Ten Hag was sure of his system, the major decision in the week of the final came in personnel. His first-choice defensive pairing Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez were fit enough to start the match, while Mainoo, Fernandes and McTominay were certain starters. The quandary was whether to stick with Amrabat in holding midfield or restore the five-time Champions League winner Casemiro, who had deputised in central defence due to a spate of injuries.

As The Athletic revealed on the eve of the game, Ten Hag’s choice was bold; he set up in training for much of the week with Amrabat as a starter and Casemiro as a substitute. It was only on the day of the game, after the team sheets were originally handed in with Casemiro on the bench, that the Brazilian then withdrew, with the club and his representatives saying that the player had complained of tightness in his hamstring.

But make no mistake, Amrabat’s selection was tactical and it turned out to be a masterstroke against City, who Ten Hag described after the game as “the best team in the world.” The box midfield outnumbered City centrally, forcing them wide, with Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho ready to spring forward to take advantage of space left by Guardiola’s advanced full-backs.

Other tweaks worked too. Assistant Steve McClaren, now responsible for set pieces since Eric Ramsay’s departure, chose Mainoo to mark Erling Haaland due to his strength, and was proven right when the teenager outmuscled the 6ft 4in striker at a late corner.

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(Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Ten Hag said he felt the belief growing in his team throughout the week and United’s preparations had been deliberate. United, for example, worked with Bruno Fernandes on a personal letter to supporters from their captain, published on the Players’ Tribune website, in which the Portuguese midfielder recalled how he cried when his agent told him a deal to join United was done in January 2020, how his children sing songs about United going to Wembley, and he appeared to commit himself to the club after some recent speculation about the future.

“After this difficult season, it is my responsibility to give more,” Fernandes wrote. “It starts with me. And it starts tomorrow. We have to give everything in this last match against City, and we have to move forward.

“I love to step out at Old Trafford more than anything in the world. I don’t want to leave. This has always been my ultimate dream.

“I just want my expectations to fit with the expectations of the club. If you go talk to any fan, they will tell you the same thing. We want to compete for the league. We want to be playing Champions League football. We want to be in cup finals. That is the standard. That is what I want. That is what you all deserve.“

Bruno Fernandes, Erik ten Hag


(Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

While United supporters may have been boosted, they were also spooked when widespread news reports emerged detailing how, in the lead-up to the match, United’s hierarchy had been contacting the entourages of potential candidates, including the Ipswich head coach Kieran McKenna, with a view to potentially replacing the Dutch coach. It overshadowed the external build-up to the final and continues to dominate coverage of United as media and supporters wonder how part-owners INEOS will move forwards.

Behind the scenes, however, Ten Hag and his staff had one more trick up their sleeve. His assistant coach Mitchell van der Gaag held a tactical meeting on Friday afternoon, by which time it became clear that Amrabat was likely to start the game ahead of Casemiro. Before delivering the tactical plan, Van der Gaag presented a video of his own. This time, it was an edit from the 1999 US sports movie, Any Given Sunday, and the iconic motivational speech given by coach Tony D’Amato, played by Al Pacino, addressed to his Miami Sharks. Cutting between D’Amato’s locker room and images from United’s period under Ten Hag, Pacino’s speech provided the voiceover, crossing over with U2’s hit song One.

Pacino’s words summed up United’s own season. “Now either we heal as a team or we’re gonna crumble, inch by inch, play by play, ’til we’re finished…. We’re in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me. And, we can stay here — get the shit kicked out of us — or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb outta hell one inch at a time.”

Every United player was present in the meeting, and as Pacino’s speech spoke about the narrow inches of elite sport — “one half a step too late, or too early, and you don’t quite make it. One half-second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it” — the video relived Garnacho’s disallowed offside goal at Arsenal earlier in the season, where United plucked defeat from the jaws of victory, as well as Victor Torp’s disallowed goal for Coventry against United in the semi-final at Wembley, where United came within a whisker of defeat.

Those who saw the video recalled how every player across the squad featured in the showreel; top-class saves by Andre Onana, United defenders clearing shots off the line and memorable goals such as Scott McTominay’s late winning header against Brentford and Garnacho’s overhead kick at Everton.

In essence, Ten Hag and Van der Gaag sought to remind United’s players what they are truly capable of, and in Pacino’s words, urged them to “heal as a team”, rather than “dying as individuals.” It was also a raw encapsulation of United’s pleasure and pain over the past season, encouraging them to “climb outta hell” while showing clips of United’s players applauding their supporters after a recent 4-0 defeat at Crystal Palace in the Premier League, as well as the trauma of Chelsea’s dramatic 4-3 win over United in April. The aim was to expose United’s players to their own highs and lows, seeking to replicate the highs and galvanise the team by avoiding a repeat of the lows.

“Now I can’t make you do it,” says Pacino. “You got to look at the guy next to you. Look into his eyes! Now I think you’re gonna see a guy who will go that inch with you. You’re gonna see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows, when it comes down to it, you’re gonna do the same for him!

“That’s a team, gentleman! And, either we heal, now, as a team, or we will die as individuals. That’s football guys. That’s all it is.

“Now, what are you gonna do?”

That was the question to United’s players. Their answer? Win the FA Cup.

(Header photos: Getty Images)



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