5 Things We Learned: Manchester United 3-2 Southampton

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1. The better team lost

Southampton deserved to win this cup final. That is not just a case of trying to be magnanimous in victory, they were the better team on the day. They had a perfectly good goal ruled out incorrectly as offside, hit the post, forced several good saves and generally played with a passion and energy above that of their victorious opponents. The game statistics show that Southampton managed more shots on goal (12 to United’s 10), more possession, and a seemingly endless cavalcade of 12 corners, all of which felt perilous due to the consistently excellent deliveries of James Ward-Prowse.

Mourinho is not known for praising his opponents, but in his post-match comments, stated “the opponent was better than us for long periods – they deserved to go to extra time”. He went on to say “It was a game I was feeling the difficulty. I want to pay homage to Southampton and what they deserve. We have the cup in our hands and probably should be in extra time”. He was prowling the technical area during the game, and scowling during the post-match celebrations as if he had just had unwanted revelations in the national media regarding his personal life. He’s generally a hard man to read, but it is fair to assume that whatever else was going through his mind, he was not particularly pleased at the manner of his side’s performance.

Post-match, pundits, media and fans have all agreed that Southampton are extremely unfortunate not to have a long-awaited item of silverware to add to their collection (of one), and although United played well in patches it is difficult to argue with that conclusion.

2. Zlat’s the difference

The two goals of the talismanic Swede were the difference, the over-riding reason for Manchester United finally overtaking Liverpool as England’s most successful club (I had to get that in). Not much new can be said about the 35-year-old veteran, as he is finally starting to get the recognition he deserves in England that he has achieved throughout Europe during the rest of his trophy-laden career. His scoring statistics in the last year are up there with Messi and Suarez. There is no disputing the massive influence he exerts over this team.

In simple terms, if Zlatan was unavailable for the final Southampton would have won. He does have limitations, like any player. I have heard fans getting frustrated with the fact that he is a permanent fixture in every side, and some of those arguments are logical. He does not possess explosive pace, and on occasion he can drop deep to try and involve himself as opposed to providing the attack with a focal point. Certainly, playing Rashford or Martial through the middle offers different qualities that can be suited to certain opposition. That argument is a technical and tactical one, and deserves some credence. The reality, however, is that Ibrahimović as a character is critical to this side. He is a proven, serial winner. He inspires his team mates, and his team mates have complete belief in him, second only to the belief he has in himself.

It is perhaps a lazy comparison to liken him to Eric Cantona, but the similarities are apparent. Cantona proved a catalyst to the most successful period in the club’s history, and when you hear his former colleagues think back to the time of his arrival, they often refer to his influence on the younger, less experienced members of the team. He set an example in his training methods, his extreme confidence, bordering on arrogance, and his unshakable will to win. These qualities helped to push the sides of the 90’s beyond challengers and into champions. The result of Zlatan’s impact will be told in the coming months, but he is pushing this side towards a higher level. A team with a mental fragility since the departure of Sir Alex, has become at the very least a side that doesn’t know when it is beaten and relentlessly competes. The impact of a character as charismatic as Ibrahimović should not be under-estimated, and this final was just another example of the importance he has to the continued evolution of this team. If there is a concern, it is his age and the fact that, as remarkable as his continued level of performance is, it cannot be expected to continue into the coming seasons. The hope is that it won’t have to, and his influence will have transmitted to the squad.

Summed up in his own words following the final, and bear with it: “The lion is born a lion – it means I’m a lion. I feel in good shape. I train hard. People who know me from the locker room know that I train very hard. I have an objective every season I go into, and to reach that objective I need to train hard.” Captain for the day Chris Smalling summarised his impact well, explaining that when you get a character like him “everyone else just feeds off it and hopefully we keep winning things”.

3. This Cup win really seemed to matter

A lot of us are lucky enough to remember times, not so very long ago, that to United the EFL Cup through its many incarnations, was a very distant fourth place in the order of merit. It was held in low esteem by Sir Alex as he fielded weakened sides to keep the legs of his weary players fresh for more important fixtures. That has not been the case with Mourinho, throughout his career in England.

As such, onlookers have remarked that the verve and vigour of the celebrations for winning this trophy shows a fall from grace. Social media has been awash with player selfies and jubilant dressing room scenes. From the Pogba dab to the Lingard shuffle, you can almost feel the lingering ghost of Roy Keane readying himself to embark on a disgusted, expletive ridden rant. To an extent, it is probably true that it is reflective of the current status of the team. Albeit Louis Van Gaal did deliver the FA Cup last season; but it has been a bleak and depressing preceding three seasons by modern standards. This feels like a significant win in the current context.

Recent history, 2006 to be precise, shows the impact a League Cup win can have. Sir Alex endured a barren couple of seasons prior to this as the side was being rebuilt featuring young stars like Wayne Rooney and a spotty victim of puberty, Cristiano Ronaldo, as they operated in the shadow of an extremely dominant Chelsea team led by a certain Jose Mourinho. The League Cup win proved to be a catalyst, as the club rediscovered a winning mentality, leading to three consecutive league title wins and a further European Cup. Winning breeds winning, and although this trophy may not represent a successful season on its own, with the competing interests of the other competitions still to come, it provides the confidence that comes with winning, and the thirst for more.

4. Tiredness was evident

The fact that United are competing on all fronts has led to an unenviable fixture pile up that is extremely difficult to manage, and there was no debating the fact that Southampton, fresh off a two week break from playing action, were the fresher of the two sides. This final has been their sole focus, their tactics had clearly been worked on to perfection, and they sustained a high level of energy and pressing that United found difficult to answer.

One factor in this is a lack of rotation from Mourinho throughout recent months. He does rotate certain positions, but the core of the side has remained for virtually every game, and this begins to take its toll on the key figures within the team. This has always been a trait of Mourinho. He likes to have a consistency in selection, and the cohesion that it brings to the side. He prefers to work with a small squad, and the most recent transfer window saw him trim the fat in the form of Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay.

What it does mean is that it becomes difficult to compete on several fronts as the depth of the squad is not utilised. It is, however, hard to argue as without certain players, United are simply not as effective. Pogba and Ibrahimović were finally rested against Blackburn in the fourth round of the FA Cup, but in order to get through what should have been a straightforward tie, they both required to be introduced, to great effect, from the bench.

Lack of rotation is not a criticism I could aim at Mourinho, but it does present its own problems. It is difficult for occasional players like Schweinsteiger, Shaw, Young, Fosu-Mensah, Romero, and Fellaini to be expected to come into the side and hit the ground running.

5. It feels good to win bad

The fact that Manchester United delivered the cup having been outplayed for the majority of the game is not necessarily a negative – in fact it’s a refreshing change. Far too often this season, United have been the dominant, vastly superior team, and failed to secure a victory. Too often the side have not been clinical enough, and their level of performance has not translated into victories.

On Sunday, United took their chances. They mustered five efforts on goal, and scored from three of them. I’ve heard it suggested that Frazer Forster, whilst he didn’t exactly drop any clangers, didn’t have his best day and could have done more with all three goals. That is overly critical, but no doubt Jose will be pleased to see a less than heroic display from an opposition ‘keeper. United were clinical, and that has rarely happened this season. Their chance conversion rate sits at the bottom of all Premier League sides, and their goals scored is vastly inferior to their top six rivals.

It is trotted out so often it begins to lose meaning, but successful sides need to learn to win when not at their best. That is a hallmark of any successful team, as nowhere in sport will any team or individual be able to perform to their peak every time they take the field. The important result from Sunday, and the fact that will be remembered, is that Zlatan Ibrahimović inspired Manchester United to victory in a cup final. It is a win, it builds confidence, and whilst it is not one to dwell on in the long-term, we may look back on it in years to come with added significance.

Fergus’ website: http://reasonableextremes.tumblr.com

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