Here are five things we learned from Manchester United 3-2 Southampton.
Puel’s shrewd tactics expose United’s fragilities
Although they understandably ran out of steam towards the end, Southampton gave a spirited, dogged performance that also clinically targeted United’s vulnerabilities. Claude Puel clearly instructed his full-backs, Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand, to bomb forward regularly.
They did just that and engineered several opportunities, including Soares’s cross for Manolo Gabbiadini’s wrongly disallowed goal and James Ward-Prowse’s excellent ball that found the Italian striker to make it 2-1.
United looked sluggish and fatigued at times while Southampton, who were well-rested after two weeks without a game, had much more in the tank. Unfortunately for them, they came up just shy in the end.
Gabbiadini embraces poacher’s side of the game
As previously mentioned, Southampton can draw a lot of positives from their performance, not least the continuing threat of their £14m January signing from Napoli.
Gabbiadini had one goal stolen away from him, but he didn’t let that deter his enthusiasm and scored with two classic poacher’s finishes, the second of which was a brilliant piece of improvisation to guide a shot into the corner on the turn while being marked by Chris Smalling.
The 25-year-old certainly won’t be able to keep up his current hot streak, but he definitely looks as though he can be a regular source of goals for the Saints, something they missed in the first-half of the season after Graziano Pelle’s departure.
He’s now scored in his last six games stretching back to his time at Napoli and Southampton fans will hope his clinical finishing can continue for years to come — and only the linesman's errant flag denied him a historic EFL Cup final hat-trick.
World-class Zlatan disguises United’s sloppiness with EFL Cup final brace
The stats don’t lie: Ibrahimovic has 26 goals for United this season (including 20 in his last 22 appearances), more than any of his teammates have managed over the past two seasons. The influential Swede is a serial winner, much like Jose Mourinho and being led by such a personality on and off the pitch has contributed majorly to United’s upturn in fortunes recently.
It will be well-documented that United were far from their best, but a good team can often dig deep and win when things aren’t exactly going their way. Ibrahimovic is never beaten because he refuses to accept the possibility of defeat when the game is still going. He had two big moments in this game, and that’s all that was required for United to win their first trophy in the Mourinho era. His defensive contribution should not be ignored either, making three clearances from corners to relieve the mounting pressure on his team.
Yes, it’s true that United have relied on him to rescue points and wins when they haven’t been at their best this season, but that’s exactly why they brought him in from Paris Saint-Germain. He’s a thoroughbred match-winner.
Another big game overshadowed by officiating mistake
We don’t want to sound like a broken record, but another major decision was called incorrectly by the officiating team. The linesman raised his flag to deny Gabbiadini what would have been the opener. In fact, it was Nathan Redmond who had strayed beyond the last man and the linesman’s eye was almost certainly attracted to him as the ball headed in that direction.
With every passing error – especially considering this was a big one in a cup final – we feel as though we’re edging closer and closer to video refereeing being introduced into English football. The game has certainly benefitted from goal-line technology, which has eliminated the possibility of error from decisions that are immensely difficult to judge, so it seems like it would be a case of natural progression to utilise a different piece of modern technology.
Football isn’t getting any slower – the officials need assistance.
United looked chaotic and rattled at the back throughout
Mourinho will certainly reflect and assess on his team’s performance as a whole, but the obvious starting point would be a litany of defensive errors. The back-four looked vulnerable and shaky throughout.
Collectively, they were less than convincing, but Marcos Rojo’s defensive incompetence must be highlighted. There was a moment early on that seemed to sum him up. Beating Cedric Soares to a loose ball, Rojo opted to blast his clearance against the Southampton man instead of playing the percentage and hoofing the ball out for a throw. Soares emerged with possession, prompting a rash reaction from Rojo when he lunged at the Saints full-back.
It could have easily been a penalty, but it was a goal, before the linesman’s flag swiftly interrupted celebrations.
Smalling, too, did not cover himself in glory when he was sucked in by Gabbiadini and outfoxed as the striker cleverly scored on the turn. It’s also worth pointing out that Eric Bailly only managed to win three out of seven duels and lacked a bit of control in possession when United were under the cosh. United may have won the EFL Cup final, but they still need to improve at the back – and Mourinho knows that.