Connect in the back of the net

FA Cup semi final, FA Cup final, Community Shield, and now the EFL Cup final – all four of Manchester United’s recent visits to Wembley have resulted in victory by a one-goal margin, and also resulted in three trophies in less than a year.

On this occasion, it was the club’s prime time player Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who scored his 24th and 25th goal of the season in the process) who delivered the goods vs Southampton.

Manchester United lined up in a 4-2-3-1 – the only real surprise was that Jesse Lingard was chosen to play in the hole behind Ibrahimovic – meaning Pogba and Herrera were tasked with holding down the fort in midfield.

Southampton came in with the same formation as they had against Sunderland in a 4-0 win, with set piece expert James Ward Prowse starting on the right wing, and Nathan Redmond on the left wing.

New signing Manolo Gabbiadini started up front after scoring three goals in his first two games for the club.

 

Southampton off to a bright start

Southampton had two weeks off prior to this game while United were playing their fourth game in the past 10 days.

It definitely showed, as Southampton started the game really well.

Nathan Redmond was the main player, as he collected the ball on the left and drove at the defence.

Juan Mata was unable to track him due to the Spaniard’s lack of pace, and that meant Ryan Bertrand was able to fly forward and support Redmond.

Southampton really exploited both wings, and the first talking point of the game came when Cedric ran towards the byline before squaring it into the box.

Gabbiadini looked to have poked home, but the linesman’s flag went up (incorrectly as replays showed).

 

Goal against the run of play

United made Southampton pay quite quickly from a free kick.

Oriel Romeu fouled Ander Herrera outside the box, and Ibrahimovic and Pogba both were standing over it.

The Swede pulled rank, and curled the ball towards the net with power. He had placed it perfectly over the head of Steven Davis (one of Southampton’s shortest players), and the ball went past the outstretched hand of Fraser Forster into the goal.

United had not deserved the lead, but 1-0 it was.

 

Clinical United

It was soon 2-0 after intricate one-touch play from a throw in. Rojo and Martial combined on the left, and Rojo cut the ball back to Lingard at the edge of the box.

United’s homegrown player took a touch, and passed the ball into the corner of the net to score his third goal at Wembley in his last three appearances.

At 2-0, it was desperately unlucky for Southampton, but United had been clinical.

 

Southampton galvanised

Just before halftime, it was 2-1.

The ball got played out to Ward-Prowse on the right hand side, and his curled cross found Gabbiadini about 4 yards out.

The Italian’s movement in the box is one of the best features of his game, and he opened his body up to finish the ball through De Gea’s legs.

It was a goal Southampton deserved, and it was game on at halftime.

The goal really galvanised the Saints, and they came out after the half all guns blazing with a succession of the corners.

United had brought on Michael Carrick for Juan Mata to try and control more of the midfield, but it was to no avail at that point.

A corner was half cleared out of the United box, but the ball was headed back into a central area.

Gabbiadini was facing away from goal, but on the swivel managed to strike a first time shot with his left foot that left De Gea rooted.

2-2, and the game had turned on its head.

 

Wing havoc

Southampton continued their dominance, continuing to attack through the wings.

Bertrand and Redmond especially were causing havoc, while Marcos Rojo was repeatedly being exposed.

The game was settling down into a repeated pattern where one team would be dominant but not both.

Whenever United had the ball, they were able to pass it around the back and into midfield, but there were no incisive balls up to the front three.

There was a Martial burst of pace from the halfway line, but his ball to Lingard was cleared away by Yoshida.

Lingard then chested the ball in the area but blazed over the bar – it was to be his last involvement before Marcus Rashford came on.

Southampton continued to use Nathan Redmond, and his cut ins were threatening.

Their set piece delivery was also excellent, especially through James Ward-Prowse and his wand of a right foot.

Their main chance came when a corner found Oriel Romeu in the box, but his header over Paul Pogba hit the post and rebounded away.

That would probably have won the game for Southampton (deservedly), but such are the fine margins in football.

 

The winner

In the 87th minute, another Ward-Prowse corner was cleared by Ibrahimovic at the near post. Martial flicked it beyond a Southampton defender, and back to Ibrahimovic who ran away from his goal.

He was 2 vs 1 at one point, but chose to slow down just after the halfway line and play it back – United then probed around the box and switched it from right to left via Carrick in the middle.

From the left, Martial had cut in, and spotted Herrera in space outside the right hand side of the box.

The midfielder took a touch to set himself, and then clipped a perfect ball into the box.

The ball seemed to stop in the air for a bit, especially when Ibrahimovic leapt unchallenged.

He powered a header past Forster, and it was 3-2 United.

Mourinho’s men saw it through to the final whistle by effective use of possession and using their aerial ability to clear headers away.

 

Man of the Match

Naturally, the cameras found Ibrahimovic who had single handedly lifted United to the win.

The Swedish striker looked absolutely spent, but it was a deserved Man of the Match performance.

He also gave as good a performance in the post-match interviews – as he said, ‘My friend, I keep going. I keep doing what I’m doing every year’.

How grateful Manchester United fans are for that.

 

Boost

The League Cup may be the least important of the four competitions, but it is definitely used as a platform.

Winnings breeds a mentality, and at a club like United with a manager like Mourinho it will be used as an example of how United need to replicate the feeling going forward (both this season and in the future).

Mourinho recognised that they had been second-best throughout the game, and it should have gone to extra time but for the brilliance of Zlatan.

In fact, Gary Neville summed it up best on commentary – Southampton were the better team, but Manchester United had won through individual brilliance – the brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

 

Written by Vishakh Chandrasekhar

Follow Vishakh on Twitter @VishC24

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