Today saw the final of the English Football League (EFL) cup, where Manchester United scraped their way to the trophy by beating a valiant Southampton side 3-2.
If I’m honest, the word ‘valiant‘ does not really do Southampton justice, perhaps considered as plucky underdogs before the game, it should be noted they hadn’t conceded a goal in the competition prior to Zlatan scoring a free kick in the 19th minute.
Southampton started brightly, continually pressing Manchester United and forcing them into more and more rushed passes with possession frequently being lost. It culminated in a disallowed Gabbiadini goal in the 11th minute, Cedric had cut inside following a mistake by Rojo and played a ball across the front of the goal, which Gabbiadini slotted home well. The decision was understandable, as Bertrand was in an offside position when the ball was played across, but it was a mistake that would prove pivotal.
This was a well crafted move from Southampton and showed just how well-drilled Claude Puel had his side, using their width and the lack of willingness in Martial and Mata to continually track the runs of Bertrand and Cedric to great advantage.
The first goal of the game was from a free kick that was rashly given away by Romeu, he had no business to slide in on Ander Herrera in a position that was just under 30 yards from goal. Zlatan did what Zlatan does, but not without a little help from Forster who was slightly late in setting off to try to make the save.
Southampton then resumed their pattern of play, continuing to be the better side, as they were for much of the final. Against the run of play, Jesse Lingard slotted home in the 38th minute. It was an extremely composed finish from a player that is yet to prove he is of sufficient ability to be a consistent Manchester United player for years to come.
Despite being the better side, it appeared as though Southampton would be heading into half-time 2-0 down, however that was not the case. On the stroke of half time, Southampton pressed home their advantage of having good width, matched with a great delivery from the right hand side by Ward-Prowse. Smalling missed the near post interception, and Bailly attempted some form of ‘Moonwalk‘ which Gabbiadini slipped behind and finished neatly through De Gea’s legs.
During the first half, Tadic kept finding space between Manchester United’s central midfielders and their centre halves, something that saw Michael Carrick introduced at half time for an understandably quiet Juan Mata.
This change did absolutely nothing to stem the flow of the game, Southampton again started the half brightly, creating good pressure and having a flurry of corners. It was from one of these corners that Gabbiadini tucked home what should have been his hat trick. It was an extremely composed and great finish, hit on the swivel and past an onlooking David De Gea.
From this moment, neither team really grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck. Controversy was almost afoot in the game, when Romeu and Herrera went up for an aerial challenge; Romeu’s elbow connected with Herrera’s face. The Saints midfielder had already been booked, and the Manchester United players again made their feelings very clear to Andre Marriner, but the referee stood firm and simply warned Romeu. The right decision in a cup final.
Manchester United found themselves in a similar situation, where Lingard had a little nibble at the heels of a very dynamic Nathan Redmond. It was almost identical to his first half booking but Marriner simply warned Lingard and allowed the game to continue. I thought the game was officiated extremely well by the referee, despite the pivotal offside decision.
All in all, Southampton were the better side, but finals especially are not about the performance and all about the result. It was an 86th minute corner that saw Southampton being undone. They had pushed players forward in the hope to win the game, and whilst admirable, this left them light at the back and Manchester United moved up the field with great purpose. Martial showed very good footwork and played the ball out to Herrera, all the while, Zlatan was drifting into what must have seemed like an acre of space in the middle of the box. Herrera needed to deliver and he did, drifting the ball perfectly on to Zlatan’s head, and from that moment there was never any doubt. The back of the net rippled, and broke the hearts of Southampton fans and players alike.
The ‘Ibrahimovic effect‘ has been profound, the big Swede has got 26 goals already this season, which for a free transfer is phenomenal. He has to be one of the best signings ever made by a Premier League side, the goals he has scored, impact in the dressing room and on the pitch have been vital. Mourinho made some big statement signings in the summer, with the club breaking the record transfer-fee on Paul Pogba, but it is consistently Ibra that shines and it’s frightening to think that he has missed some guilt edged chances throughout the season.
Mourinho becomes the first Manchester United manager to win a trophy in his first season, and that is some feat. Granted the squad that has been assembled has cost a lot of money and until recent cups, hasn’t delivered a great deal but you can’t help but feel Mourinho is getting a grasp of the task at hand and how he will move the Manchester United squad forward, and how he will go about winning their first title since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.