22 years ago to the day, a European final brought out the best in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. What happened at the Camp Nou on May 26 1999 defined the Norwegian’s illustrious career as a Manchester United player. Another European final on the same date in 2021, though, exposed many of his weaknesses as the club’s manager.
The Europa League final defeat to Villarreal was decided on narrow margins. While penalty shootouts are never the lottery many pundits have claimed them to be over the years, they are a discipline somewhat detached from the rest of football. It would be merciless to condemn a manager or player on the basis of a shootout.
That Manchester United found themselves in a penalty shootout, however, was largely on Solskjaer. The 48-year-old set up his team to dominate the ball and push Villarreal back. When that didn’t work, he was too slow to make changes. For a figure best known for a match-winning cameo off the bench, this was peculiar.
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When Solskjaer did make his first substitution, in the 100th minute of the match, he withdrew one of the few players who had looked to make something happen by dribbling past an opponent - Mason Greenwood. The introduction of Fred might have been made with the intention of pushing Paul Pogba out to the left, where he had impressed recently, but Pogba was hooked 15 minutes later. All the while Marcus Rashford, who played arguably his worst game, lasted the full 120 minutes.
Of course, it wasn’t all on Solskjaer. His hesitancy on the touchline reflected a lack of depth. With Anthony Martial out injured, United only had the unpolished Dan James and Amad Diallo to shake up their attack. £35m Donny van De Beek was left on the bench, but the Dutchman has struggled even when he has been given a chance this season.
Harry Maguire’s ankle injury also exposed just how short Manchester United are of genuine pedigree at the back. Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof both have their qualities, but neither have yet to show they can put them all together as a competent defensive partnership. Maguire holds it all together at the back and without him on the pitch United came apart at the seams.
Solskjaer’s shopping list for the summer will be a long one, with reinforcements needed on the right wing, in central midfield and up front, but nowhere is his transfer market need greater than it is in central defence. The signing of a world class centre back must be the priority for the Old Trafford outfit.
The players on the pitch in Gdansk still should have been good enough to get Manchester United past Villarreal, though. Unai Emery set up his side well to defend deep and close up the space between the lines, but far too frequently United were passive in their possession of the ball.
David de Gea after Manchester United's defeat
Image credit: Getty Images
This was particularly evident in the first half when the Premier League team toiled. United needed their midfielders to be braver. Scott McTominay appeared to recognise this at half time, but the Scotland international was often alone in driving the ball forward at his feet. Why wasn’t Pogba able to do the same thing?
Villarreal exposed Solskjaer’s flaws as a manager and Manchester United’s vulnerabilities as a team. There has been undeniable progress at Old Trafford this season, but some rather big steps still have to be taken. It was never about winning the Europa League for United, it was about the symbolism of becoming winners. The symbolism of them being losers should be noted too.
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