* Jose Mourinho made no effort to hide his displeasure at the journey, but the final destination was always the most important thing for Manchester United. Their performance in an enthralling EFL Cup final against Southampton left more questions than answers, but – and with every disrespect to the Community Shield – the serial winner has delivered a trophy at the first attempt.
Just as predictable as Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s late winner in a game Manchester United perhaps deserved to lose were the attempts at belittlement which followed. Rival fans criticised the players for celebrating winning England’s tertiary trophy, but this represents so much more than silverware. For United, this is forward momentum, the first rung on the ladder, the tangible reward for their recent improvements. They will need to play better to finally escape from the clutches of sixth place in the Premier League, and they will need to play better if they wish to augment their trophy collection further. But this provides the perfect platform.
* As for Southampton, the crushing nature of their late defeat, having fought back from two goals down, should not detract from their showing. Claude Puel’s side were the aggressors for most of the match, having more shots, more corners and more possession than their opponents. Southampton had the better team performance, but Manchester United had Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
What happens next at St Mary’s is difficult to say. Since being appointed manager in the summer, Puel has never enjoyed unanimous backing from supporters. His tactics have been questioned, his team selections have been scrutinised and his unemotional approach has been lambasted. But he clearly still enjoys the support of his players, and while their current Premier League placing will disappoint many, it was an impossible job to improve on their league position for the eighth successive season. On the basis of this performance, Puel has surely earned more credit with his dissenters.
* “I have to make a decision,” said Mourinho in midweek. “If we want to play with a No 10, Wayne, it’s obviously his position.”
So imagine Wayne Rooney’s surprise when Manchester United did indeed start with a No 10, but the captain was left on the bench. His public insistence that he was staying at the club was met with indifference, such is the smooth nature of his phasing out at Old Trafford. For Rooney to be benched – and to stay on the bench – for a cup final was an unfathomable situation 12 months ago.
In his stead, Jesse Lingard was given the nod. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan injured in Europa League action, Lingard was entrusted with replicating his movement, dynamism and drive. Good luck.
But it was Rooney’s absence that truly caught the eye. Michael Carrick found himself in the same predicament. The message to United’s old guard is clear: accept a reduced role, or move elsewhere. If reports are to be believed, the captain will choose the latter option.
* United made six changes to their starting line-up, but, for the first time this season, Puel named an unchanged starting XI for Southampton. Sofiane Boufal returned from injury, but was named on the bench. The trio of James Ward-Prowse, Dusan Tadic and Nathan Redmond would supply the bullets for Manolo Gabbiadini.
Oriol Romeu and Steven Davis were obvious choices in midfield, but the manager might have been tempted to make a change in defence. Puel surely considered handing a debut to Martin Caceres at centre-half, the former Juventus defender capable of providing much-needed experience. But the decision to trust the pairing of Jack Stephens and Maya Yoshida was understandable; they had not conceded a single goal on their run to Wembley. Of course, they were yet to face Ibrahimovic.
* Since Southampton’s 4-0 win over Sunderland on February 11, United had played three times. And so it was understandable that Saints enjoyed the better start. Paul Pogba had the first attempt on goal, palmed away by Fraser Forster after a one-two with Ibrahimovic, but the south-coast side were soon in the ascendancy.
Redmond fired the first warning shot. The winger danced through a sleepy defence before winning a corner. It would be the story of much of the match.
But the fear was always that Southampton had to take advantage of their dominance before a potential United onslaught. After 11 minutes, it seemed as though they had. Ryan Bertrand’s cross from the left evaded everyone in a packed penalty area, finding Cedric Soares on the other flank. The Portuguese breezed past Marcos Rojo, and crossed for Manolo Gabbiadini to score. 1-0.
DISALLOWED: Southampton thought they had taken the lead against Man Utd. Watch the EFL Cup final on Sky Sports 1. https://t.co/enmNVf1QY4
— Sky Football ⚽️ (@SkyFootball) February 26, 2017
Well, not quite. The linesman flagged for offside, but Gabbiadini was clearly behind Chris Smalling. Bertrand was standing in an offside position, but did not interfere with play.
The decision to rule the goal out was described as “disgusting” by impartial pundit Matt Le Tissier. Such a reaction, although vitriolic and partisan, was understandable. Officiating has to be of the highest standard for the biggest games, and this was one of Southampton’s biggest games in 41 years. It was simply a bad call.
* At that stage, the script was written. United had started poorly, Southampton looked incisive and inspired, and they had reason to feel aggrieved at a refereeing decision. So the inevitability of their opponents taking the lead after 19 minutes was crushingly familiar.
Not that Southampton were blameless for their concession of the opener. The situation – a free-kick around 25 yards out – should never even have materialised. Romeu was commanding throughout, but an unnecessary tackle on Ander Herrera (who was snide and wonderful in equal measure) provided Ibrahimovic with an opportunity he would not spurn. The midfielder’s moment of foolishness, combined with Davis’ inability to jump in the wall and Forster’s impression of a falling tree, granted United the lead.
* That is the reductive way of describing Ibrahimovic’s first goal. Had Romeu not fouled Herrera, the chance would not have come to pass. Had Davis jumped, the free-kick would have been blocked. Had Forster moved quicker, the save was not a complicated one.
Ibrahimovic will not care, and rightfully so. Having told Pogba to vacate the premises in the kindest of terms, all that mattered was seeing the ball nestle in the bottom corner of the net. United were still rubbing their eyes after sleepwalking through the early stages, but their Swedish star had already showered, fetched the morning paper and cooked breakfast.
Each and every critic has been thoroughly embarrassed, and now can only sit back and watch in awe. One must wonder what Michael Owen was thinking. It was Ibrahimovic’s 223rd goal for club and country since turning 30 – one more than Owen managed in his entire club career.
* “Because I’m playing with Daley Blind, with Marcos Rojo, with Matteo Darmian, and all of them are playing a way I like a full-back to play.”
On the basis of this game, Mourinho rather likes his full-backs to play like they have won an award to play in a cup final for Manchester United. For Antonio Valencia was as reliable as Rojo was a liability.
Rojo was atrocious at LB, decent CB but he looks lost on the left and is shit on the ball, everything Luke Shaw isn't, bring him back Jose!
— Jon Harris (@JRharris77) February 26, 2017
The United manager’s comments above, made earlier in the week, were his attempt to explain the continued absence of Luke Shaw. The 21-year-old started each of the club’s first six games of the season, but has made just eight further appearances. He must have watched Rojo’s suicidal floundering and wondered quite where his dream move had turned into a nightmare.
The most recent claim is that Shaw is considering his Old Trafford future. It would be negligent of him not to do so; a broken leg stalled his development at a crucial stage of his career, and now his own manager is doing the same.
* That was always going to happen. ‘How can Lingard survive under ruthless Mourinho?‘ was the question I posed recently. ‘By scoring in cup finals’ was one particular response. His third goal in three Wembley appearances handed United a two-goal lead.
It was perhaps their best move of the match. Rojo, a safe distance from his own goal, combined with Pogba, Juan Mata and Anthony Martial to fashion an opportunity for Lingard, who placed his effort into the far corner.
His overall performance did little to ease suspicions that he is not good enough – he lost possession on 12 occasions and did not gain it once – with the game passing him by for large swathes. He also missed a glorious chance late on, before being substituted straight after. But he is scoring goals in cup finals at Wembley, and I’m sat here writing about him. So there.
* It was a quite bitter blow for Southampton, who had inexplicably fallen two goals behind. They had the quality but lacked the final touch; United were the exact opposite.
But their reward did finally come just before half-time. Redmond played in Ward-Prowse down the right-hand side, with Gabbiadini providing the finishing touch.
The man-of-the-match award was reasonably handed to Ibrahimovic, but Gabbiadini was excellent. The Italian’s first owed to his superior movement, while his second was a spectacular moment of instinct. His hold-up play was also impeccable, fashioning one chance for Ward-Prowse, and he proved a handful for Smalling and Eric Bailly all afternoon.
After Shaw came Bertrand. After Lallana came Mane. After Lovren came Van Dijk. Gabbiadini is the latest in a long line of replacements who are somehow improvements on Southampton’s conveyor belt of talent. Yet none have had quite the same immediate impact as their club-record signing. He has now scored five goals in three games;the only player to have scored more goals for Southampton this season is Charlie Austin (9). How long can they hold onto this one for?
* He would, of course, save his best for the equaliser. His sudden turn and shot three minutes into the second half left De Gea rooted on his line as the realisation hit the rest of the stadium: Southampton had deservedly levelled.
Mourinho must have been seething. The Portuguese was already pacing his touchline in the first half, clearly unhappy at the standard of performance. He brought Carrick on at half-time to replace the peripheral Mata, changing shape from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3.
As ever, the altering of the system seemed to be another attempt to maximise Pogba’s talents. All it served to do was highlight his deficiencies. The world-record signing has been quietly impressive in his debut season, but shirked on the biggest stage in his biggest game yet.
There were the typical moments of inspiration, but they interrupted a performance blighted by poor decision making. His lack of defensive awareness was startlingly obvious in a midfield two next to Herrera, while the change in system to suit his needs, with Carrick his safety net, did nothing to improve his game. And that is not to mention his aerial ability; Romeu crashed a header against the post in the second half when marked by the Frenchman, who managed the impressive feat of looking smaller while jumping.
At 23, Pogba is still learning, and he is tasked with doing so under the glare of the spotlight. Each touch is scrutinised, each moment highlighted. But Mourinho should do more to protect him. He struggled throughout, yet played the full 90 minutes. He has been substituted just once so far this season.
* Southampton fought back from an incorrectly disallowed goal and a deficit of two to earn level footing in the match, but they would not stop there. Chances came to take the lead through Romeu and Redmond. United barely held firm.
The left-wing combination of Bertrand and Redmond was proving a handful. The former continues to grow in stature, providing defensive solidity and attacking verve. His only problem is that Danny Rose does it slightly better, and sits just ahead of him in England’s pecking order.
— Ben Grounds (@Ben_Islington) February 26, 2017
It is now a case of ‘when, not if’ in terms of Redmond’s international chance. The 22-year-old had four shots – more than any Southampton player – created two goalscoring chances, and completed three dribbles. Gabbiadini will take all nominations for lead actor, but there is no doubt as to the most influential member of his supporting cast.
* “We’ve done very well in the Premier League for the last three or four years. To get a cup? That would be proof of our great improvement, so I want to help achieve that.”
To his credit, few were as dedicated to that particular cause as Maya Yoshida. The centre-half made two tackles, six clearances and two interceptions. There can be no shame in being bested by Ibrahimovic, for the Japan international was imperious throughout.
The pressure placed on Yoshida’s shoulder cannot be underestimated. His last full season as a regular starter at club level came in Southampton’s first season back in the Premier League. He has provided back-up to Dejan Lovren, Virgil van Dijk, Jose Fonte and Toby Alderweireld. He has been called upon to play at right-back. But with Fonte’s sale and Van Dijk’s injury, the loyal servant has been promoted to the role of central-defensive leader. He almost guided his troops to victory.
Yoshida can and should be improved upon in the summer, but he has proven his worth as a reliable squad option. He certainly fared better than his United defensive counterparts.
* It started with a defensive header from a corner, and it ended with the most attacking of headers at the other end. Even in the middle, Ibrahimovic afforded us some stellar link-up play, before strolling into the penalty area and sealing the 30th major trophy of his career.
His teammates have to learn as much as they can from him during his short stay at the club. The 35-year-old led from the front but ensured to help out at the back, making as many clearances as he had shots on target (3). Mourinho was appointed for his winning mentality, but translating that particular trait from the dugout is difficult. To see it manifest itself on the pitch in the form of Ibrahimovic is quite something.
Since the start of last season, no player has scored more goals in all competitions for United than the Swede (26). Since the start of last season. He might just be the best free transfer in Premier League history.
* Joe Hart will hardly be quaking in his boots. On this basis, even an injured Jack Butland would be preferential. Only one Southampton player emerged from this cup final defeat with his reputation harmed.
Fraser Forster might be 6′ 7″, but the 28-year-old somehow manages to make the goal look bigger, not smaller. He should have done far better with all three goals. It might feel harsh, but that is what elite, international level goalkeepers do. His performances this season stand as conclusive proof that he does not belong in that category. A reminder that this is Southampton’s best-paid player, and he cost them in a cup final.
* “For the development of the team there is nothing better than the feeling of trophies.”
If anyone should know, it’s Mourinho. Two of his previous three triumphs in this competition were the preface to Premier League titles. This is evidence that his methods still work. Evidence for the players, evidence for the fans and, were it ever truly needed, evidence for himself.
His most recent demise at Chelsea hurt him. The Portuguese is the master of deception, of hiding his weaknesses, and so he has been able to mask the effects of his Stamford Bridge sacking. This is not redemption, but it is a step in the right direction.
So too for United. They have now been beaten just once in 26 games, and could yet taste success in the Europa League and FA Cup. Losing this final having held a two-goal advantage might well have destroyed their season; this could breathe new life into it.