It was desperately cruel. Valencia to Herrara to Ibrahimovic, all alone in the six-yard box. A simple conclusion to a game that, in simple terms, Southampton should have won. Yet the ironic thing is that, were it not for the masterful contribution of marksman Manolo Gabbiadini, the Saints would have been down and out by half-time.
There is much pride to take from these special Wembley occasions, regardless of the result. Possibility becomes probability as the rounds wind down and the pot gets smaller – a cup run can save a floundering team, crown a winning formula or re-energise a stagnant season. For Southampton, caught mid-table domestically and largely missing the spark that has defined their teams of yesteryear, this was the latter. To lose to Manchester United is no disgrace, particularly given the luckless circumstances. Had Gabbiadini, who looks poised to finally fill the gap left by Rickie Lambert, not been incorrectly ruled offside for his first of three strikes, the outcome might have been wholly different.
Nonetheless, Southampton under Claude Puel have been largely difficult to watch and – occasionally – downright frustrating. They’ve veered from the bloody brilliant to the hapless – a magnificent defensive performance against a rampant Manchester City in late October rendered as little more than inertia two weeks later following a truly dismal showing at Hull. On the surface, Southampton are the epitome of a well-run club. The next step will be crucial though, as they enter a new period under Puel.
The Saints have nurtured some of the countries most venerable coaches – Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino both made themselves known to English football on the South Coast. Puel must follow in well-heeled footsteps and do it convincingly on a shorter time scale than that perhaps afforded to his predecessors. The ‘long-term’ is a concept that no longer exists in football. An appearance at Wembley will buy Puel time, but he needs to steady his hand on the tiller.
Since rejoining English football’s top table, Southampton have rebranded as something of a feeder club. Adam Lallana, Nathaniel Clyne, Dejan Lovren, Sadio Mane and Luke Shaw have all departed for pastures new and now the club must focus their efforts on retaining their top talent. Virgil Van Dijk, Dusan Tadic and James-Ward Prowse have all been linked with moves away, so Puel must offer them a tangible, achievable project to work with him on. Mid-table folly won’t appease the ambitious.
In addition, they must continue to develop their young talents. Marcus Rashford arguably bought Louis Van Gaal an extra few months to oversee an FA Cup triumph at Manchester United last season and the tale of the wet-behind-the-ears, wide-eyed teenager is one of football’s most beloved cliches. Jack Stephens did a remarkably believable impression of the departed Jose Fonte on Sunday whilst Josh Sims is a name that already commands the attention of the St Mary’s faithful.
The team also need leaders. With Fonte departing and Van Dijk perhaps not far behind, who will pick up the mantle? Gabbiadini looks like a shrewd signing, particularly in light of Southampton’s goalscoring record. 28 goals in 25 games so far this season does not make for pleasant reading, particularly given the fact that they scored 59 in 38 last year. It speaks volumes that the 25 year-old Italian is already the club’s second highest goalscorer in 2016/17, having only joined a little over a month ago. Had they been clinical in their dominance on Sunday, this article wouldn’t have been necessary.
Tactically, Southampton have always been exciting to watch. With yo-yo full-backs and an engine room of steel and dynamism to match, they’ve out-thought, out-passed or simply out-ran teams in the past. They need to develop the likes of Oriel Romeu, who is finally showing the sort of form that placed him in such high regard at Barcelona’s esteemed La Masia academy. Nathan Redmond has a bright future ahead of him, despite a shaky start to life at the club, whilst Dusan Tadic can produce moments of sheer magic. These are the sort of creators, instigators and work-horses who can lead the club forward.
Southampton must also seek a clear identity. Do they want to push on for the golden chalice of European football, like they did under Koeman, or stagnate in the mid-table abyss? The margins between 10th and 20th are becoming slimmer each year, just as the top six continue to slowly cut the strings tying them to the rest of the league. The last train out of the relegation zone dogfight hasn’t left yet and Southampton need to ensure they’re on-board.
Emotive occasions at Wembley will live long in the memory, but the cracks are visible in the fabric of the club. Repair is necessary and, more importantly, achievable. Puel must commit to another cycle of regeneration, another turnover to maintain a club whose mere presence in the Premier League is a reminder of the virtues of shrewd investment, effective management and loyalty.