Established in the Premier League - or as established as anyone outside the traditional top six can ever hope to be - tonight’s visitors to Bramall Lane buy players inexpensively and then sell them at a premium before repeating the process all over again.
Slavisa Jokanovic’s employers hope to achieve something similar if the Serb can lead them back to the Promised Land. But first they must deliver a promotion after being relegated five months ago, which explained Jokanovic’s decision to change his entire starting eleven for this Carabao Cup third round tie.
He wanted to progress, which United very nearly did before bowing-out 4-2 on penalties. However, plotting a course out of the Championship remains the priority. So Jokanovic, who saw Oli McBurnie equalise after Ibrahima Diallo and Mohammed Salisu had responded to Enda Stevens’ opener, should be encouraged by the display his men produced as they matched the visitors in terms of industry and invention.
Oliver Norwood impressed in midfield while Jayden Bogle and McBurnie, seemingly growing in confidence as the contest unfolded before missing from the spot, also gave Jokanovic food for thought ahead of Saturday’s meeting with Derby County. Chris Basham was his usual assured self.
Satisfied with both the depth and the quality of the options at his disposal, Ralph Hasenhuttl no longer feels it is necessary to rest the most influential members of his squad in a competition which, if some people get their way, will soon be consigned to the footballing dustbin. Like Jokanovic, the Austrian took a cleaver to the side which had delivered what he described as a “world class” display en route to a draw against Manchester City three days earlier. But it still contained four senior internationals, including Albania’s Armando Broja, who tested Wes Foderingham’s reactions only seconds into the game.
After providing United with an early warning about his talents, the striker, on loan from Chelsea, drifted slowly out of the contest.
Instead it was Stevens, making his first appearance since recovering from a hernia operation, who landed the first telling blow of the evening when he fired home after eight minutes. The finish was clinical as, after being left in space just inside the area, Stevens fired the ball back across Fraser Forster and into the net. The build up play from Bogle was even better, as he weaved his way into position before picking exactly the right pass.
Diallo levelled midway through the opening period when the dangerous Yan Valery and Oriol Romeu teed-up Diallo, who headed home.
Iliman Ndiaye should have restored United’s advantage, only to miscalculate his angles after dancing through Southampton’s rearguard, while United went close again soon after the break with substitutes Rhian Brewster and Ben Osborn combining to carve apart the opposition. It was the latest in a series of swift counter-attacks launched by both teams before Salisu swept the ball past Foderingham from close range.
McBurnie’s delightful touch, from Osborn’s centre, restored parity just past the hour mark. Foderingham, who produced a superb save to deny former United centre-forward, also denied Broja during the shoot-out. But with Brewster and McBurnie failing to convert, it was Southampton who progressed.