The inquest into Manchester United’s Europa League final failure has begun.
United could only draw 1-1 on the night and then lost 11-10 on penalties.
This was a great chance to win silverware and United blew it. The reasons are more complex than simply being down to one reason.
Here is a look at five reasons why United failed to win the Europa League…
This has been a long season and spurts of excellent form have been mixed in with series of disjointed displays.
Unfortunately United entered the final in the midst of a poor run of form, winning just two of six matches leading up to it and failing to keep a clean sheet in any, including the ones Harry Maguire played.
Marcus Rashford for instance had scored in just one of nine games played leading up to the final. Paul Pogba’s hot streak of goals and assists subsided.
United’s season peaked with the second half against Roma. The last month featured four dead-rubber league games of which United just won once. Rotation was essential, but United lost the winning spirit and key players saw their momentum sapped.
If United’s players are superior to Villarreal’s, then you can argue the manager is not. Unai Emery may play an unattractive defensive style, but it was enough to limit United.
Did Solskjaer overthink his team selection by breaking up Fred and Scott McTominay? It meant Paul Pogba played deeper, limiting his attacking threat, and made Bruno Fernandes easier for Villarreal to close down.
United were in the ascendancy on 70 minutes and Emery’s substitutes managed to kill off the game, with five players coming on to provide energy to combat Solskjaer’s weary players. Solskjaer only made his first substitution on 105 minutes and seemed to be making changes with penalties in mind.
Solskjaer got it wrong, because he should have gone for it more in normal time, rather than rely on the lottery of spot kicks.
Emery is a tactician who has now won the Europa League four times. Solskjaer has a long way to go to show he can win when it really matters.
Reliance on key players
Not for the first time, Solskjaer was too reliant on key players. He pushed his starters through the 90 minutes and showed a lack of faith in his bench.
This is not the first time. Against Sevilla last season Solskjaer only made changes after United had gone 2-1 down at the end.
Against City in the Carabao Cup he introduced Donny van de Beek with United 2-0 down with three minutes to go, and not one down with 25 left.
Solskjaer is too reluctant to take off Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, becoming totally reliant on the duo. He had penalties in mind, sure, but good coaches don’t rely on a shootout.
It was actually a surprise to see him take off Paul Pogba with five minutes remaining.
Solskjaer benefitted from Sir Alex Ferguson’s boldness in 1999, when he brought Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole off, and threw on Ole and Teddy Sheringham. He failed to take the same such gambles until it was too late.
Or if it could be argued Solskjaer lacked the options this time around, what about Fergie’s masterstroke gambling on Federico Macheda in 2009. Sometimes you have to take a chance.
Inability to defend set pieces
United’s Achilles heel all season long has been an inability to defend set pieces.
Often it is the long free-kicks from deep which causes United trouble, and Villarreal’s goal was painfully familiar.
It echoed goals conceded against Liverpool and Everton to name just two, and this is a big area United have to improve.
Solskjaer and the players have talked about changing it for too long, and the time for words is over. It is time to bring in either a new centre-back, or a new defensive coach, or even both.
Victor Lindelof has been the common denominator each time, and his weakness in the air has been a worry ever since he signed for the club.
United should aspire for better, and not settle for a defender who is a shadow of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
A Bruno miscalculation?
Manchester United captain Bruno Fernandes chose to take penalties second after winning the coin toss.
This put United under extra pressure especially in sudden death, with Villarreal scoring every penalty. While United coped with the pressure, eventually the team fell short.
The Mail report that the team who takes penalties second in a shootout statistically face a 20 per cent disadvantage.
We will never know if United would have won and Villarreal would have cracked under pressure sooner, had they been taking penalties second.
David de Gea can’t save penalties
United’s fate ended up in the hands, and feet, of a goalkeeper to save penalties, having not managed to do so since 2016.
De Gea was set up for failure, asked to do a job in the shootout on faith and not in form.
Prior to the shootout he had conceded 25 consecutive penalties. In the time since he last conceded one, Dean Henderson had seen opponents fail to score past him from the spot eight times.
Former boss Louis van Gaal once made an important shootout change with the Netherlands at World Cup 2014, bringing on goalkeeper Tim Krul for an important role to help his side reach the next round.
Henderson should have come on, and would surely have kept one out. If it came to taking one, he could not have done worse than De Gea.
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