Recently, the EFL Cup final occurred, and with the first major trophy of the season on offer, there seemed to be ample motivation for both sides to expand their trophy cabinet. Manchester United, who prior to the final had amassed four tournament wins, may have been deemed favourites, predominantly due to their superior ranking in the EPL. Yet, Southampton may have been superiorly equipped to claim the trophy, due to both victories versus a greater number of top tier opponents in the tournament, and the consistent form of January signing Manolo Gabbiadini. Ultimately, it was indeed Mourinho’s side who were concluded the victors and, if they are able to utilise this experience, may be provided with the momentum to advance their quest to return to the Champions League.
En route to the final, it seemed Southampton had the more challenging path to Wembley, yet they seemed to take the pressure in their stride, recording victories versus four Premier League opponents, including former tournament victors Liverpool. In addition, the South Coast club recorded clean sheets in every game, the second team to achieve this feat, which may have suggested the implementation of a three man midfield containing an anchor-man enabled the backline to become more resolute. Manchester United seemed to have a similar path to the final, as with the exception of EFL side Northampton in the third round, they emerged victorious versus top flight opposition. As such, it seemed both teams were well equipped to add the trophy to the repertoires, and with both managers seemingly having comparative styles, the encounter seemed to be intriguing.
Whilst Claude Puel seemed to enforce multiple changes to his regular side, most notably to his back four, due to both the sale of captain Jose Fonté and injury to Virgil Van Dijk, United manager Mourinho seemed to aim to replicate his team’s recent form by utilising traditional tactics. As such, a 4-2-3-1 formation was implemented, with Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata favoured rather than club captain Wayne Rooney. These tactics seemed to provide dividends, with Lingard extending United’s lead after Zlatan Ibrahimovic had earlier opened the scoring. This was the Swede’s 25th goal in all competitions, which may showcase his finishing prowess, along with Mourinho’s tactical nouse, as he signed, and integrated, the forward into his side. Yet, two goals from Gabbiadini, bought to spearhead Southampton’s charge for silverware, enabled his side to draw level. Yet, this seemed to motivate Mourinho, and his substitutions shored up the midfield, and ultimately led to Ibrahimovic’s late winner, perhaps highlighting the reasoning as to why Mourinho was hired as manager.
Whilst United’s victory guarantees them a Europa League place for next season, Mourinho may seek to utilise this performance in a bid to bolster United’s charge for Europe’s pinnacle competition: the Champions League, enabling United to challenge themselves versus a smorgasbord of Europe’s top clubs. Most pivotally in this quest may be the actions of Mourinho, who seemed to showcase his tactical nouse in the final; the utilisation of similar tactics to those which enabled his side to win 2-0 versus Southampton earlier in the season proved dividends and, if he is able to draw upon his experience at Chelsea, where he won seven major trophies after his maiden win in the same tournament, the victory may lead to further honours.
Manchester United host Bournemouth in the upcoming fixtures, whilst Southampton travel to Vicarage Road and, whilst United may be superiorly impacted due to their victory, Southampton may also be able to draw productive conclusions from their involvement in the tie, and progress from their position of 13th in the table. In addition, the final may lead to innovation in the field of video technology, as Southampton’s early offside goal, eventually deemed legal, may result in the FA aiming to implement further enhancements in order to ensure the validity of results. Ultimately, whilst domestically productive outcomes may be drawn, international football may also be rewarded, as with multiple English players on show in the final showcasing their ability, England manager Gareth Southgate may aim for the replication of this form for the Three Lions.
How may the tournament elevate its status as a priority in the season?