It may not have been convincing, but Jose Mourinho won’t care about that. With three minutes remaining Ander Herrera found space beyond the back post and shaped the ball across goal for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to head in from close range. United had let a two-goal lead slip and had struggled defensively for long spells, but ultimately it had the win and the League Cup.
It’s the fourth time Mourinho has won a competition that he take far more seriously than many of his contemporaries. He won it in his first season of both his spells at Chelsea and it heralded greater success to come: players, he believes, get used to winning, to use Brian Clough's phrase, “they get used to the taste of champagne.”
But Southampton will wonder how on earth it lost. Goals from Ibrahimovic and Jesse Lingard had United 2-0 up after 38 minutes, yet Southampton had been much the more threatening. Two goals in quick succession from Manolo Gabbiadini either side of half-time pulled it level before Ibrahimovic’s late winner. Its fans will also reflect on the strike Gabbiadini had controversially ruled out early on, and on the Oriel Romeu header that hit the post midway through the second half. United rode its luck.
But part of success in football is the capacity to take your chances and there is perhaps nobody better at that than Ibrahimovic. As he addressed a 19th-minute free-kick, 25 yards out, there was an air of inevitability about the result. Sure enough as two United players ducked off the end of the wall, he whipped his shot past Steven Davis’s head and past the stretching right arm of Fraser Forster. It was the first goal Southampton had conceded in the competition this season.
Yet it came against the run of play. Twice early on Nathan Redmond got away on the left and hot low balls across the box that needed only a touch to convert and then, after 10 minutes, Cedric dispossessed Marcos Rojo, cut infield and played the ball towards the back post with the outside of his right foot. Gabbiadini seemed to have opened the scoring, only for the goal to be ruled out for offside against Ryan Bertrand who was behind him. Whether he was interfering under the modern interpretation of the law was debatable.
After falling behind, Southampton continued to look the more lively side. David De Gea was twice called into saves by low shots from just outside the box: first he denied James Ward-Prowse with a stretching save to his right, then, having apparently dived too far, he managed to block a Dusan Tadic effort with his feet. It was striking that United should be so vulnerable in such an obviously key position: an indication, perhaps, of the positional sense its midfield lacks when Michael Carrick isn’t there. The 35 year old had limped out of the midweek win over St Etienne with a calf injury and was restricted to the bench. Carrick, unsurprisingly, was introduced at half-time and the shape changed from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3.
United had barely offered a threat but suddenly it had a second goal,a slick move following a throw-in on the left leading to Marcos Rojo slipping the ball to Lingard, who had scored the winner in last season’s FA Cup final. That was a fierce volley; this time his shot passed with no great pace through the legs of Maya Yoshida and just inside the post.
The assumption, perhaps, was that United would shut the game down, but not a bit of it. Southampton’s policy of attacking Rojo kept creating chances and it pulled one back in first-half injury-time, Ward-Prowse crossing low for Gabbiadini to turn in his fourth goal in three games since joining from Napoli
His fifth followed three minutes after the restart. Southampton forced two corners in a row and when the second was half-cleared, Davis returned it to the box with a looping header, allowing Gabbiadini, a natural finisher, to pivot and hook the ball past De Gea. The game continued to be surprisingly open. While Southampton can point to the man opportunities it had to win the game, Forster saved well from both Ibrahimovic and Marcus Rashford in the second half and Lingard blasted over when in space at the back post.
By the time Ibrahimovic headed the winner, it’s probably fair to say United had come to seem the more likely winners. It was his 26th goal of the season in all competitions, a remarkable record for a player who seems undimmed by age. He has now scored 224 goals in the five years and five months since he turned 30, an extraordinary statistic.
Just as extraordinary is the fact that Mourinho has still never lost a League Cup tie in 90 minutes. There will be much in the performance he will question, but the net result is yet another trophy for a coach who has now won 11 of the 13 finals he’s contested. His capacity to win is insatiable.