LONDON — Three thoughts from Manchester United’s 3-2 victory over Southampton at Wembley Stadium, which sees Jose Mourinho’s side lift the EFL Cup trophy.
1. Manchester United win the EFL Cup
Where would Manchester United be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic? It’s a question that, when this season as a whole is considered, might be tough to answer. But on this occasion, they would be without the EFL Cup, won in a thrilling encounter against an excellent Southampton side at Wembley.
Ibrahimovic scored twice — one a brilliant free kick, the other a header — in United’s 3-2 victory, a game in which their assorted defensive frailties were exposed but made moot by the big Swede. Jesse Lingard got United’s other, while the unlucky Manolo Gabbiadini’s brace for Southampton was ultimately for nothing.
Southampton had the ball in the net after 11 minutes, as Gabbiadini turned home a low cross from Cedric Soares on the edge of the six-yard box. The linesman’s flag went up, but replays suggested the Italy international was level with the last man; Ryan Bertrand was in an offside position on the far side, but not interfering with play.
United took the lead 10 minutes later and from a familiar source. Oriel Romeu chopped Ander Herrera to the ground around 30 yards from goal and Ibrahimovic curled the ball into the bottom corner, past a grasping Fraser Forster. Forster’s movement could generously be described as “creaking” as he dived to attempt the save, but it remained a fine strike.
Southampton got back into the game and managed to find plenty of spaces in the United defence, but couldn’t convert any of their play into a goal. And they paid for it eight minutes before the break, when some lax or non-existent closing down allowed Marcos Rojo to play in Jesse Lingard, who slid the ball home. That’s his second goal in major finals inside nine months. For a player who is by no means a first choice for United, Lingard has certainly enjoyed his share of big moments.
Just before the break, Southampton pulled one back in a manner similar to the goal they had disallowed: again Cedric crossed from the right and again Gabbiadini was there six yards out to poke home. This time the linesman remained unmoved and Saints were back in the game.
And it was only a few minutes after the break when they were truly back, as Gabbiadini grabbed a second. Southampton attacked from the start and won a corner on the right, which was only half-cleared, fell to the forward — who hit a superb snap shot on the turn — catching the ball at the top of its bounce and surprising the whole United defence, none of whom moved until it nestled in the corner.
The remainder of the half swung both ways, as Saints attacked with gusto and United replied with periods of dominance themselves. Mourinho brought on Marcus Rashford to add a little more impetus to their play and while he didn’t have a great deal of impact on the game, United soon punched through.
With the clock running down, United launched a counter-attack; a cross came over from the right and Ibrahimovic was there, about eight yards out, to head home. A few hairy moments remained, but they hung on to win Mourinho’s first major trophy as United boss.
2. Ibrahimovic remarkable, reliable in front of goal
There was a moment in the first half when Lingard slipped a ball through the Southampton defence, theoretically for Ibrahimovic. There was too much weight on the pass and even the speediest of forwards would have struggled to reach it. And yet Maya Yoshida chased it down as if Usain Bolt had slipped a jetpack on his back and was in hot pursuit, clearing with an urgency that didn’t suit the situation.
That was because of Ibrahimovic. His second goal was his 26th in 38 games this season and it’s not even the end of February. It was his 20th goal in his last 22 games. You can see why defenders might get a little jittery even when there is little obvious danger. It’s also worth reminding yourself at this point that Ibrahimovic is 35.
But the ageing process doesn’t really seem to apply to him. Ibrahimovic’s overall goals total is now 418, but he has scored 224 goals since his 30th birthday. That’s a very, very respectable career total. It’s two more than Michael Owen managed in his entire career. But Ibrahimovic has managed more goals after the mark at which it’s generally accepted that a footballer starts to decline than he did before it. That, it goes without saying, is absolutely remarkable, and suggests he could go on for a little while yet.
There was a point earlier in the season, when Ibrahimovic was going through a relatively brief dry spell, during which it was tempting to think that time was in fact catching up with him and it was folly to rely on a player of his age. Not now, though.
3. Gabbiadini seems to be the perfect player for Saints
Seven years ago, just after Ibrahimovic had completed his £60 million move to Barcelona, Gabbiadini still had a part-time job as a mechanic in Bergamo. He even continued to work there after being named in his first matchday squad for Atalanta.
A glance at Gabbiadini’s past goal-scoring record did not suggest that he would become the Premier League’s latest dead-eyed finisher: his record was respectable but not sensational, that of a talented player who hasn’t properly settled anywhere and has played in a number of positions. But since arriving in England he has scored five goals in three games. That’s added to the three in his last three games for Napoli before the transfer to Southampton.
He will presumably not keep up that rate of scoring, but this represents another piece of wonderful business by a club who seem to have a remarkable prescience in not only being able to spot a good player, but one who will fit into their team seamlessly.
Gabbiadini, on the admittedly brief evidence of these early games, seems to be the perfect player for a Saints side who often seem to play well for spells, but before his arrival too frequently didn’t take advantage of that. His two finishes (three, if you count the erroneously disallowed first) were genuine poacher’s efforts, almost improvised shots that caught the United defence and goalkeeper unawares.
At 25 years old, there is plenty of scope to fulfil the other part of Southampton’s grand plan, to attract a much higher fee than they paid for him when a bigger club decides they need a centre-forward. Admittedly, that might be a rather unromantic thought right after a cup final in which he scored twice, but a realistic one.
But for the moment he’s Southampton’s, and despite this defeat, they’re very happy about it indeed.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.