We caught up with The Busby Babe’s Brent Maximin to chat about the EFL Cup Final on Sunday between Manchester United and Southampton. It’s safe to say Manolo Gabbiadini’s run hasn’t gone unnoticed.
St Mary’s Musings: No way Ibra is 35 years old. But when he’s been less than successful, what have you noticed teams doing to stop him? Or should Saints just be praying he has an off day?
Brent Maximin: He's definitely 35 — we've counted the rings on him, like a tree. Even in the games where we've had trouble scoring, it's hard to pin that on any specific approach to handling Ibrahimović, which is not to say that he's been consistently excellent, despite all the goals. There was one stretch before the turn of the year where his finishing let him down for several games, and he was missing sitters. That spell seems to have passed, but his lack of mobility can still sometimes be an issue. He's 35 after all, and Mourinho is insistent on playing him for 90 minutes in every important match. Even on his good days, his movement is “economical”. So if he has a day on Sunday where he looks his age and/or looks leggy from playing 90 minutes on Wednesday—the last half an hour with 10-men—then you could get your off day.
SMM: Aside from Ibra, who is another player Southampton should be concerned about on Sunday?
Maximin: Normally, this would easily be Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who has been our most dangerous attacker since Mourinho took him off the naughty step. But he picked up some kind of hamstring problem in mid-week, so I don't expect to see him involved in the final. Juan Mata is almost sure to start, and he always seems to produce a goal or an assist in the big games. Despite having difficult second seasons, both Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are rounding into form, and their pace alone will create problems for your full-backs. Other than that, I'd keep an eye on that young fella in midfield with the flash haircuts. He's not bad.
SMM: How do folks really feel about Fellaini? … He seems to be the scapegoat when things don’t go right. Is it justifiable?
Maximin: Yes, and no. He does make an easy target, and it's not helped by the fact that his signing is basically the emblem of the dreaded Moyes "era." He's not a bad player, by any means, and Mourinho trusts him to follow instructions, something that the manager values above all else. He can also be an effective attacking weapon off the bench. The problem is that he's slow, a bad passer, sometimes clumsy, and is more likely to land a sly elbow on an opponent than he is to actually put a header on target. The criticisms of his ability are largely valid — he simply is not a good enough footballer for a club of our ambition — but it can go overboard. He's not the one picking himself in the team, or sending himself on as a sub, after all.
SMM: The League Cup is often pushed to the back burner by Premier League clubs. How is it viewed in the eyes of Manchester United and what would a win on Sunday mean?
Maximin: United fans were spoiled by so much success under Ferguson that the League Cup was always a clear fourth priority. It was a chance to see some youngsters in action, and give some fringe players a chance to impress. If we won it, it was a nice bonus while we were focused on more important things. But after finishing 7th, 4th, and 6th in the league, and winning just one FA Cup in three years though, it's safe to say most fans are a little more excited about Sunday than we may have been pre-2013.
A win on Sunday would be a first taste of winning something under Mourinho, which would be important for a team that is still growing together. Inasmuch as we've only lost once in almost four months, we've also had a fairly amenable run of matches in that time. Getting a first trophy under their belts will hopefully gear the team up to kick on, because we've got a tough schedule in the next several weeks.
SMM: What has been the best and worst moment of Mourinho’s tenure thus far?
Maximin: The worst was easily getting drubbed away to Chelsea. There's no shame in getting beat away at the champions-elect (especially for United, who almost never win at Stamford Bridge), but the manner of the loss was chastening. They spanked us, and let us know just how far we were from being title contenders. The best for me was the comeback win over Boro in the league. We had been a little hard done by some earlier decisions, and then Boro snatched a goal out of nothing. Martial and Pogba striking in quick succession with just minutes to go was like a throwback to the good old days.
SMM: What is more likely to prevent United from winning their fifth League Cup and first since 2010 — Southampton or United standing in their own way?
Maximin: Without being too dismissive of Southampton's threat — *looks nervously at Gabbiadini* — United should be lifting the League Cup on Sunday, unless we get in our own way. Our current back line has a mistake or two in it ... Chris Smalling has looked shaky recently, and we're currently rotating between three players at left-back, none of whom are actual left-backs. Mkhitaryan's penetration will be a big miss, and without many natural wide attackers, our attack can get bogged down. Mourinho hasn't always gotten his tactics or substitutions right this season either.
SMM: Final score prediction?
Maximin: I'll go for a boring one. 2-1 United. I don't expect an easy ride, but United should have enough firepower to win this one.