In the end, the clinical powerhouse that is Zlatan Ibrahimovic put to rest a valiant resurgence by Southampton in the 2017 EFL Cup final. Outplayed for vast quantities of the game, we were (once again) grateful to this season’s talisman for what looked at times an undeserved victory.
This is not to say that we didn’t deserve the win – you can only be judged on the final scoreline – but Southampton’s performance merited at least the possibility of extra time. Even the manager, usually so reserved in his praise for opposing teams, was profuse in his admittance of the Saints’ dominance over 90 minutes. According to him, this was a game in which “[Southampton] was better than us for long periods of the game”. And yet, we leave Wembley the victors: trophy number 65 in hand, and no amount of criticism from rival fans can take that away.
Critics will point to Southampton’s wrongly disallowed opener changing the face of the match. Others, of the United persuasion, may mention Bobby Stokes’ offside goal in the 1976 final…let’s just call it even for now. Officials will always be scrutinised, but we can only play to the whistle and decision.
United approached this fixture as game number four in the space of just eleven days. Combined with Mourinho’s apparent unwillingness to rotate the squad accordingly, the recipe was there for an underwhelming, fatigued performance. “The fuel was not in our legs” – the strikingly accurate synopsis offered by the manager. And this was evident throughout. The back four were shaky; this was possibly Eric Bailly’s worst game in a United shirt, and Marcos Rojo had the look of a man coached by Louis Van Gaal. Paul Pogba, despite having been described as “outstanding” by the manager, had in the eyes of most of the United support, one of his most peripheral performances in the shirt. Remarkably, our entire team could have afforded themselves the luxury of an off-day, because of the sheer force of will of the self-proclaimed ‘King’ of Sweden.
We took the lead courtesy of his nineteenth minute free-kick. A thing of beauty, but one well overdue (I’ve lost count of the amount of wall-struck free kicks offered up ’til now); Jessie Lingard’s Wembley love-affair shows no signs of fizzling out – his stroked finish on 38 minutes saw us cruising, wholly against the run of play. Before this, Southampton had continually threatened, with Oriel Romeu hitting the woodwork and Gabbiadini’s disallowed finish leaving the Saints’ march rather stunted. The ex-Napoli man injected some urgency into the fixture just after the interval, his finish expertly passing through David de Gea’s usually bolted-shut legs, one minute into first-half injury time. Gabbiadini (already far and away Liverpool’s next-best striker at this point) restored parity to the scoreline with another brilliant finish from inside the box.
Fast-forward through 40 minutes of Southampton routinely leaving us second-best, enter Zlatan. Ander Herrera’s (more often praised for his grit and aggressiveness this season) produced a beautifully lofted pass to find the Swede, who – of course – headed the ball over Fraser Forster and ultimately crushed the Saints’ hopes of another 30 minutes at Wembley. The big man’s stats now read as follows: game number 38; goal number 26, trophy number two (so far).
Now, I may have sounded entirely effusive in my description of Zlatan’s contribution to the final. It’s impossible not to be when a player has such a singularly dominant performance. And yet there’s some room for me to leave you with a slight concern as well, particularly when it comes to Zlatan’s role and position in the squad.
After arriving from what may be a wrongly or rightly labelled ‘weak’ Ligue 1, the former PSG player has unequivocally proven his capabilities as a top performer, tried and tested in all of Europe’s major leagues. What troubles me is that this year will be 36. Is it wise of Mourinho to depend so heavily on an ageing player who, whilst undoubtedly a positive influence in every imaginable way on our young squad, will surely call time after next season at the latest? Our style of play is so clearly moulded with the focal point of Zlatan in mind. The majority of United fans (I’m sure) called for an exorcism of LVG’s mundane and predictable ‘Philosophy’ after our performances on the pitch took a dour and ineffective shape. Whilst the results and solidity of the team have taken an evident upturn since LVG’s doomed tenure, the style of play in recent fixtures most definitely has not.
In no way is this concern a call-to-arms on Mourinho’s dependency on Ibrahimovic, but after a season’s worth of seemingly youth-appropriate fixtures has passed us by (i.e. Wigan, St.Etienne, etc.) , there seem to be a fair few talented younger players who aren’t getting their fair share of game time. Was the injury to Henrikh Mkhitaryan really a necessary one? Is the obvious fatigue affecting the squad an avoidable situation? Don’t misinterpret my scepticism for disappointment; Mourinho and United seem a better fit now than at any point – the habit of winning is absolutely invaluable for our squad, and I’m delighted at the way we’re progressing. But the recognition must be there that we are a long way from the finished article.
At some point in the future the manager will have to place greater trust on the shoulders of Martial, Rashford and co, because as remarkable a talent as Zlatan is, his star will undoubtedly fade, and we need to have a contingency plan in place for when he does.