EFL Cup is just the beginning for Man Utd but could be Southampton's end
"The reality is I want more."
Of all the things Jose Mourinho could have said in the aftermath of an EFL Cup final win over Southampton on Sunday, that was among the least surprising. This was, after all, a manager who has won 21 trophies in the last 13 years (24 if you count the Community Shield and its national variants), speaking an hour or so after succeeding in what was Manchester United's third- or fourth-biggest priority. Bigger things lie ahead. Or that's the plan, at least.
In the press conference after the game, Mourinho proclaimed himself relieved. Relieved to have won, relieved to have survived a game against a Southampton side who played so well and relieved to have this game out of the way. "It's one more competition that we can delete from our mind," said Mourinho. "It's over, it's finished."
Mourinho didn't look especially happy following the victory and while he insisted he was, his relatively glum expression suggested a couple of things. First, that he was about to embark on his faux/genuine (depending on your point of view) humility acts, which he duly did by praising the "unlucky" Saints, but secondly because he knew that this was a means, not an end.
Neutrals generally don't need much of a reason to side against United, but in this case they perhaps had an added reason for vitriol. If Southampton had won it would have been their greatest moment in 41 years since they beat United in the 1976 FA Cup final. It might have represented the pinnacle of many players' careers. It would have provided tangible reward for their fairly remarkable but relatively low-key achievements since returning to the Premier League in 2012. For United, this was "merely" a staging post.
Not that United, Mourinho or any of their fans will (or should) care about that. Much has been made of this victory returning a "winning mentality" to Old Trafford, but it's worth remembering that they won the last major domestic trophy available to them and it still didn't do the previous manager much good. News of Louis van Gaal's sacking had leaked before he'd the chance to plonk the FA Cup down on the desk at his own post-match press conference.
Van Gaal's lack of consistency and achievement in the league was the problem, and that's where Mourinho must improve United from here. In an uncertain world where events shift and society seems in constant flux, United's league position has been a comforting constant (for neutrals, at least) in recent months. Aside from a few hours after they beat Watford earlier in February, United have been in sixth place since the start of November despite being unbeaten during this span. It tells you plenty about both how bad their start to the season was and how relatively mediocre the rest of the division is.
Still, Mourinho will justify this, perhaps rightly so, with the idea that his is a transitional season for United. They may have spent plenty on their squad, they may be worryingly deficient in defence and they may be relying on a 35-year-old to bail them out of many questionable positions, but if their league form continues, their position will improve. And for all their team is still a work in progress, Champions League qualification and at least one trophy -- they're still in contention for another two -- will still represent a decent first season for Mourinho. But the latter part will count for little unless the former is achieved too.
For Southampton, Sunday could either represent a platform on which to build or an encapsulation of their season as a whole. Saying a team didn't deserve to lose a game is usually a tricky business, but it wouldn't be a huge stretch to say Claude Puel's side deserved something more than an 87th-minute defeat on Sunday. That could be enormously encouraging; it could inspire them to improve their current league position of 12th, even more so when one considers they did it without Virgil van Dijk, their best defender and arguably best player.
Manolo Gabbiandini will presumably not continue scoring at a rate of five goals every three games but the addition of an accomplished finisher is just what they need. Players like Nathan Redmond, James Ward-Prowse and Steven Davis could use a performance in front of 85,000 people at Wembley as a sign they can cut it in big games. But on the other hand, dominating a game but not winning it might be a neat summary of where Southampton are.
Southampton have lost six of their last eight games in the league. They haven't won back-to-back league games since September. They've been beaten by Hull, Swansea and Crystal Palace. They have shown flashes of quality and boast players that many admire and covet, but haven't converted that into any sort of consistency.
Even if their form improves dramatically, they realistically won't be able to finish higher than eighth. If it doesn't, they might even be looking nervously over their shoulders at the bottom three: relegation is unlikely but all seven teams below them have shown signs of life in recent weeks. It's not completely unrealistic.
Sadly, from this point on Southampton's season is about treading water. For them, it was virtually the end. For United, it could just be the beginning.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.