Penalty shootouts are a lottery which can define a player or manager’s career.
Ask the Brazil team of 1994, who went down as the heroes who ended a 24 year drought without an international trophy thanks to their shootout win over Italy, and could so easily have been in the history books as failures.
Or Arsene Wenger, who lost a UEFA Cup to Galatasaray on penalties, and ended his stellar coaching career without a single European trophy, a blight on his record.
More closer to home Sir Alex Ferguson benefitted from a John Terry slip to be remembered as a two-time Champions League winner, and not the manager who lost a European final to Avram Grant.
So there is a thin line between success and failure, which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needed to fall the right side of. Instead of landing on his feet, he crash landed, but hopefully to go on and fight another day.
The problem for Solskjaer, is the manner of the match up to the shootout, meant he cannot be viewed simply through the prism of a manager who lost a penalty contest.
Solskjaer’s flaws highlighted
Solskjaer had better players, and cannot hide behind a ‘rebuild’ on this one. United should have beaten La Liga’s seventh best team in a one-off game. There are no two ways about it.
The United boss showed up some key flaws in his management for this game.
He overthought the line-up, going away from his preferred midfield combination, which ended up putting more attacking responsibility on a doubled up Bruno Fernandes, with Paul Pogba playing deeper.
He showed too much faith in his key players, and a lack of it in his substitutes. Solskjaer, for a man who built a reputation as a super-sub, seems to lack to faith in his own players to fulfil the same role.
Trying to get it right
Solskjaer is taking United forward. He has closed the gap at the top of the Premier League, and he has built a team of hungry, committed players, built around the United philosophy with an emphasis on attacking football and youth.
In many respects he ticks the boxes of a perfect Manchester United manager, conducting himself laudably on and off the pitch.
But managers are ultimately judged on trophies, and at Manchester United, Solskjaer has none.
This was a glorious chance to get his first, and until he does, his doubters won’t be convinced. The narrative will be that Solskjaer’s United blew it, again.
These chances may not come around forever, they won’t be limitless. With every failure, chances of success gets harder, with mental doubts growing, and fans losing faith.
This was a chance for Solskjaer to prove himself as a winner, and turn his doubters around. Instead, United’s failure gives his critics new life.
Most United fans would agree Solskjaer has done a great job, but ask whether he is the man to bring success back to the club and you will get a more mixed response, especially after this defeat.
Solskjaer deserves our backing
Solskjaer has done so much good at United that you cannot throw it out simply on the basis of one failed final. If David de Gea saves Geronimo Rulli’s penalty and buries his, then we are sitting here talking about Solskjaer proving himself as a winner and launching a new era of Manchester United success.
That time may come. Solskjaer has taken United forward. It should not be forgotten that when Jose Mourinho was fired in December 2018, the club were closer to the relegation zone than first place.
Solskjaer has led United to back to back top four finishes for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. He has taken the club to five semi finals in two seasons, and gone an entire league campaign unbeaten away from home. The points gap at the top was cut by two-thirds this year.
All of this came while not getting his first choice transfer targets last summer. It is now time for the board to back him, and give him the players he wants.
United is a demanding club, with the demand for success unrelenting. Solskjaer has taken encouraging steps. He will go again, in his quest to win silverware. Until he does, he won’t get the credit he craves and that this side deserve, and that’s right. He knows and would say himself that United do not accept second best.
There are reasons to doubt Solskjaer, but he deserves the continued support of fans. A one off match which culminated in a shootout defeat should not wipe out all he good work he has done, or deny him the chance to continue to try and take United forward.
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