A substitution involving Ole Gunnar Solskjaer famously secured Manchester United one triumph in Europe. His substitutions as a manager may have cost them another. A former player synonymous with making an impact off the bench was reluctant to do the same from the touchline, waiting until the 100th-minute of this Europa League final against Villarreal to do so, then failing to make the one which may have made all the difference.
After 120 minutes of football produced an unremarkable 1-1 draw in Gdansk, 21 perfect penalties resulted in one of the most extraordinary shoot-outs ever seen on such a stage. Every outfield player scored, then so did Villarreal’s goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli. It was down to David de Gea, who had failed to save his last 36 penalties by that point, to show he was better at taking them. He was not. Rulli saved.
Given that lamentable penalty saving record, it may have been wise to use one of the five substitutions Solskjaer made in stoppage time on replacing him for Dean Henderson, who looked like United’s established No 1 a few weeks ago. Henderson may have at least scored his penalty. But in truth, United should have not been taken to this distance by La Liga’s seventh-placed, who played an organised, disciplined but limited gameplan under Unai Emery.
This Europa League final against Villarreal fell on a special date in United’s history. Not only was this Sir Matt Busby’s birthday, it was also exactly 22 years since that night at the Camp Nou in 1999 and the moment which cemented Solskjaer’s legend. The 26 May also now represents the biggest disappointment of his managerial career. And his game management will be the major talking point.
It was a similar story during their elimination from this competition this last season at the semi-final stage against Sevilla, when the United manager did not appear to fully trust those kept in reserve. That he should feel unable to do two years on the run is worrying, to say the least, and will put further scrutiny on those above him who are responsible for spending and recruitment.
But then, the art of management is also to use what you have at your disposal. Once Solskjaer’s substitutions came, they came too late to make an impact and did not change the dynamic of the game. Donny van de Beek, a marquee £40m signing, went unused. Solskjaer has never found a way to make some members of his squad work in a first-choice line-up, hence why the likes of Harry Maguire and Marcus Rashford have played so many minutes.
Despite Solskjaer’s best attempts to keep his opponents and journalists guessing, Maguire was not fit enough to start. The United captain was among the first out in a new navy checked club suit to inspect the Stadion Miejski’s pitch an hour-and-a-half before kick-off and was among the substitutes but took no significant part in the warm-up, bar a couple of casual stretches.
Fred was not deemed available to play from the off either, meaning Paul Pogba lined up in central midfield and there was space to accommodate all four of Edinson Cavani, Bruno Fernandes, Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford. It was the boldest possible line-up that Solskjaer could field. United need to start just as strongly.
Before the first goal, they were in control. Villarreal were happy to cede territory but United’s press hemmed them in and snuffed their attempts to counter-attack out at the source. Dominating the ball without creating chances is an old habit that they have struggled to kick under Solskjaer, though, while another is failing to defend set-pieces. Both would soon come to cost them.
Villarreal had already fired a couple of warning shots, especially when Manu Trigueros’ back-post run on a deep corner somehow went unspotted, but the defending of Dani Parejo’s free-kick just before the half-hour mark was worse still. Victor Lindelof totally lost track of Moreno, tugging at the yellow shirt as it escaped his clutches. Villarreal’s top scorer clipped a simple finish past De Gea, preferred in goal to Henderson.
On the sideline, Solskjaer was furious. Cavani, one of the few United players to end the half with much credit, barked at all around him. A United team that had won 12 games from a losing position already this season required a 13th. If anything though, their performance only deteriorated before the break. Rashford particularly struggled to find spaces in between Villarreal’s deep-set and disciplined low block.
Something needed to change but, in terms of personnel, it was unclear exactly what Solskjaer could do. He had already played his strongest suit. The same 11 United players re-emerged for the second half and, with no immediate improvement, were still over-reliant on the bounces falling their way. Thankfully, they did.
Rashford’s long-range follow up from a half-cleared corner hit sent Villarreal goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli diving to his left, only for Alfonso Pedraza to block the shot. The rebound hit Scott McTominay, fell kindly onto Cavani’s right foot and Rulli could not dive back to his right in time to stop the ball from rolling into the unguarded net. Think Teddy Sheringham in ‘99, 22 years ago yesterday, and you will not be a million miles off.
Not one to push the boat out, Emery quickly broke up his hard-running strike partnership and sacrificed Carlos Bacca for Arsenal old boy Francis Coquelin to have an extra body in midfield. The pattern of United attack against Villarreal defence persisted but chances were still limited. Groans and howls from the 2,000 United fans in attendance met a poor Rashford miss. It would likely have been ruled out anyway but still summed up his evening.
Cavani’s predatory instincts were United’s best hope. His anticipation of a powerful but mishit Luke Shaw cross-cum-shot allowed him to make an equally strong connection but his impromptu goal-bound header hit a thankful Pau Torres in the face. Again though, it was an example of United stumbling into a scoring chance rather than properly fashioning one. And still, at the start of extra time, Solskjaer did not feel he could make a change.
Once the minutes ticked into triple figures, it finally came. Fred, who Solskjaer had dropped due to an injury picked up in midweek, was the chosen one. Greenwood, one of United’s better players overall, was replaced. Pogba advanced out to the left, which was the most obvious tactical tweak to make, but it would have little impact. The extra time period was low on incidents other than Solskjaer’s sudden urge to rifle through the changes.
By the end of the extra time, he had made five. The most surprising saw Pogba replaced, despite being one of the leading candidates to take a penalty. There were so many changes in the final few minutes that the stadium announcer struggled to keep up, mistakenly removing Rashford at one point. All the interruptions only made the penalty shoot-out inevitable. When it came, both sets of outfield players were flawless in their execution.
Indeed, some of those who Solskjaer called late upon were the best takers. Juan Mata opened proceedings for United. Axel Tuanzebe’s was a peach. Daniel James held his nerve. At the same time though, De Gea did not get near one of Villarreal’s. It was left to him to score and have start from the top again, but a long, loyal servant to United fell short on a chastening night.
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