Despite being labeled as favourites, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s boys lost the final in a penalty shootout against a resilient Villarreal side on Wednesday night.
Manchester United went into the Europa League final on Wednesday night as favourites against Villarreal. On the back of a promising Premier League campaign, which saw Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s boys finish second in the league, the English giants were expected to end their trophy drought in Gdansk. Coincidentally, it was the same competition, United won in 2017 under Jose Mourinho for their last silverware. A victory on Wednesday could have given Solskjaer his first trophy as a Manchester United manager. But, United were not able to hit their recent heights and lost to a defiant Villarreal in a penalty shootout 11-10 after the match ended 1-1 in regulation time.
Let us look at major reasons behind United’s disappointing outing in Gdansk:
Known for their counter-attack strengths, Manchester United have thrived against teams that have taken the game to the Red Devils. Arguably one of the best counter-attacking teams in England, Solskjaer’s side have often struggled against teams that sit back and park the bus. This has been the problem for the club last season as they struggled to break down resolute defences. Fast forward a year and these issues still continue to bother the Old Trafford club.
Be it at home or away, United have struggled to play their way through teams that sit behind. Their draws against West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace, and Fulham most recently have shown the weakness in United’s game. Whenever the team had the vast majority of possession in games, they have struggled to make the most of it. That was the case against Villarreal on Wednesday night as the Spanish side was happy to sit back, while the Red Devils failed to make a mark in the game despite seeing a lot of the ball.
From the word go, Villarreal accepted their place in the clash, which is underdogs. They were happy to sit behind and hit United on the counter or most likely in set pieces. Their only goal of the game also came from a set piece which was crossed into the box from almost half way line. Notably, it was their only shot on target. They did not have much of the possession either, which is something that wouldn’t have bothered Unai Emery.
Hence the onus was on Manchester United to break them down. With 60 percent possession and a star-studded attacking line-up, along with a couple of world-class midfielders in Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba, the Red Devils lacked a cutting edge in the final third. Solskjaer’s boys were not quick enough with the passing. Even when they went forward, the Red Devils were not purposeful with the ball. A lot of sideways passing happened.
United relied mainly on fullbacks Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka to create the opening with their crosses, which were comfortably dealt with by Raul Albiol and Pau Torres in Villarreal’s defence. The Reds from Manchester struggled to penetrate through their defence in the middle of the park, making life easy for the Spanish team. No wonder United struggled to create chances on the night. Out of the 14 shots United had in the game, only two were on target. They simply did not do much to trouble Villarreal’s defence despite having the majority of possession.
As the match went longer, it was pretty clear that extra time was in the offing. Unai Emery saw it in advance and cleverly made the changes in time to keep their team fresh for the extra 30 minutes and beyond. He made five substitutions in 90 minutes and made the final sixth in the last minute of the extra time. That allowed their players to stay fresh in the 30-minute period. Infact he brought on Francis Coquelin for Carlos Bacca on 60th minute mark, just five minutes after United scored, to prevent the Red Devils from running away with the match.
However, Solskjaer delayed his substitutions. His first change of the night came only in the 100th minute – that is 10 minutes into the extra time. Fred was brought on for Mason Greenwood. The remaining four substitutions were made just a few minutes from the end of the injury time. It was no surprise that United players looked fatigued in the 30-minute added period compared to Villarreal. All of a sudden Ole’s boy did not have enough in their tank to close down their opponents nor make a late surge into the box.
The unavailability of Anthony Martial might be a factor in delaying the substitutions as the club lacked depth in that department. But they still had quality players in other areas who could have made a difference. The likes of Daniel James, Juan Mata, Donny van de Beek, and Fred might have made an impact if they had entered the pitch a bit earlier. Van de Beek did not even come from the bench.
With timely changes, United could have had a chance to affect the scoreline in the regulation time, but they left it too late and were forced to rely on a lottery like a penalty shootout, which ultimately did not go in United’s favour. A tough experience to take home, but it is one that could help the players in future tournaments.