When Erik ten Hag leads Manchester United at Wembley on Sunday afternoon, the Dutchman will have ambitions to follow in the footsteps of Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho.
The two aforementioned former managers have had the honor of leading United to their previous five League Cup crowns. After Ferguson secured the club his first win in April 1992, Mourinho secured his most recent win in the competition in February 2017.
United’s 3-2 win over Southampton at Wembley exactly six years ago marked their second trophy of the 2016/17 campaign and second of the Mourinho era. After unsuccessful spells with David Moyes and Louis van Gaal, it looked like one of English football’s heavyweights was reawakening.
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The Reds had already visited Wembley just under seven months earlier for the Community Shield, following their FA Cup triumph under Van Gaal at the end of the 2015/16 season. United beat Leicester City 2-1 that day, winning a trophy, however insignificant many consider it to be, in Mourinho’s first competitive match in charge.
The League Cup final with Southampton, which was United’s first appearance in the final of the competition in seven years, represented a golden opportunity for Mourinho to add to his personal collection and give United a confidence boost. mid season. The Reds overcame a five-goal thriller, inspired by two goals from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who described himself as a ‘lion’ after United’s Wembley triumph.
But despite emerging victorious – a triumph that remains United’s last domestic trophy, even if Europa League glory would come a few months later – Mourinho’s post-match comments did not convey the euphoria of a manager who had just won his title. fourth League Cup. and his first major honor at one of the biggest soccer clubs in the world. Instead, he suggested that his team, which had blown a two-goal lead before Ibrahimovic slotted an 87th-minute winner over Fraser Forster to make it 3-2, had gotten away with it.
“First of all, the man who has just left the table (former Southampton manager Claude Puel) has reason to be really sad and disappointed,” Mourinho said at the post-match press conference. His team did a fantastic job, they deserved extra time and losing in the 87th minute gives very little time to try to react.
“It’s a bit unfair to them. They gave us a beautiful final, a beautiful match.”
Although Mourinho seemed to feel sorry for Puel, United had achieved what they had hoped to do when they arrived in the capital: win the trophy and take it back to Manchester for the fifth time. Many Reds fans, as they headed back north that February night, hoped it would be a springboard victory for other success stories. Sunday’s clash with Newcastle United represents a chance to win their second trophy since.
Mourinho, however, did not see it as a platform on which to build, instead choosing to take a no-nonsense approach, suggesting it was a win United should hold on to as a minimum expectation. He, too, used the platform of his post-match press conference to throw down the gauntlet and set out the demand for a host of trophies to follow.
“I try to win a major trophy at each club, so to win with Manchester United is a relief,” he added. “The reality is that we want more. I don’t want to see it as a platform.
“It’s something that happened. It’s one more game that we now want to erase from our minds. It’s over, it’s over, it’s a feeling of relief. It’s one of those finals that I don’t like.”
United suffered just three more defeats between the League Cup final and the end of the 2016/17 season. That meant Mourinho picked up his second big trophy of the season, winning the Europa League in Stockholm with a 2-0 win over Ajax.
Having finished his first season in charge with three trophies in total, two of which were major honours, no United fan could have anticipated that this weekend’s clash with Newcastle at Wembley, six years later, would present an opportunity. to win his first trophy since. They were close to Mourinho again in 2018, losing the FA Cup final to Chelsea, before losing the Europa League final to Villarreal in Gdansk in 2021 under the management of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
This time, however, it feels different. The demons of the past have been buried and the struggles of yesteryear have been forgotten. United are waking up under Ten Hag and it looks like it’s only a matter of time before they replenish their trophy case in the right way, possibly as soon as Sunday.
Mourinho’s comments after the League Cup final six years ago, on reflection, were in the eye of the storm. United did not have a sensible, long-term strategic plan at the time. They have that and everything else that comes with it now that Ten Hag is behind the wheel.
If United are victorious on Sunday, while Ten Hag will no doubt follow Mourinho’s lead and describe it as a starting point, it will feel like the beginning of a new dawn. They are still competing in three other competitions and will look at their chances to win them all, even if they are still out of the title race.
Mourinho offered hope that the good times were returning after the win over Southampton, but it turned out to be nothing more than a false dawn. Ten Hag needs to make sure he isn’t so talkative and bold with his own promises if his team emerge victorious in United’s latest League Cup final, and that’s possibly the best advice he can be given ahead of the final of the Sunday.
Mourinho’s success early in his reign, before it faded away, highlighted the need to shift from thirsting for immediate success to instead focusing on building a sustainable future, winning trophies time and time again. This is Ten Hag’s chance to do what Mourinho failed to do.