It is never a great idea to draw definite conclusions about a team or coach based on a single game. Even if that game is the final of a major European competition. The margins are so fine within any 90-minute period that any such prediction would most likely be inaccurate. Manchester United’s loss to Villareal in the Europa League final, however, amplified a number of questions that have not yet been conclusively answered by Ole Gunnar Solskjær and his men.
Manchester United finished the Premier League season in second place. Eight points and one place better off compared to the last campaign. After enduring a shaky start, United bounced back to enjoy quite an impressive campaign. They were unbeaten away from home throughout the season and suffered just two losses to the traditional top six. They had a top four spot wrapped up with significant room to spare and enjoyed a number of impressive performances throughout the season.
In other words, there was a lot to like about Manchester United’s season. This should be enough to create overwhelming support for Ole Gunnar Solskjær but up until now, that is still not the case. A large part of that is down to a fairly constant set of uncertainties that lurk under the surface, bursting into view with every unconvincing performance or result. That is why this final was extra important.
Villareal posed a tricky task for Manchester United. The resource disparity meant that it was to no one’s surprise that Unai Emery’s side sat back and allowed United to dominate possession. Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood were all on the field from the starting whistle but once again, Solskjær’s men were remarkably sterile in possession for the first half an hour of the game. Villareal were compact and resolute in defence but they were never really flustered or put in difficult situations.
The murmurs began to be more audible and they raised familiar queries about Ole’s ability to organize a team to be able to break down low blocks. It would be unfair to suggest that the severity of the problem had not reduced since last season. United recorded a number of victories this campaign against sides that were happy to play for a draw from the get-go. The issue was still a glaring one, the Reds looked bereft of ideas and the superior quality they had was not making its presence felt.
It was not an ideal situation to be in but it became a far worse one, a Dani Parejo freekick and a Gerard Moreno toe-poke later, Manchester United found themselves behind on the half-hour. Once again, another weakness was exposed; defending set-pieces. United rallied after the goal but were unable to create anything of note for the rest of the half. They managed to find a goal in the 55th minute through Cavani but that did not signal a change in the performance that the United team had been putting up and they slumped back into the fruitless slog that had characterized the game until that point.
On the 60th minute, Unai Emery took off striker Carlos Bacca and replaced him with combative midfielder Francis Coquelin. Solskjær, on the other hand, preferred to keep his cards in his pocket, believing in the players on the field. That was by no means an obvious error but as the time ticked by and it became clearer that the setup and personnel on the field were not able to effect any change in the game state, Ole’s decision not to introduce some new variables into the game was more baffling.
In-game management is a difficult aspect of coaching and not all managers are skilled at making changes, tactical or personnel-related, while the game is going on. Still, it is a very important part of winning games, especially at the highest level and on a number of crucial occasions Solskjær’s inaction has been decisive. In last season’s Europa League semi-final against Sevilla, Solskjær did not make a change until the 87th minute, by which time Manchester United were already 2-1 down and the opportunity for those substitutions to have an effect was very limited.
In this game, Solskjær elected not to make any changes until the 100th minute, Unai Emery had already made 5. One can point to the dearth of world-class options on the United bench but that is a shaky point seeing as Villareal were working with players that would not even make the United squad in some cases. Even still, United had Donny van de Beek, Amad Diallo and Daniel James. Players who, at the very least, would create some different problems for the Villareal defence.
In this situation, different is good because the existing setup was simply not working. The changes were not forthcoming until very late and the game ended up going to penalties; David de Gea missing the first kick of the shootout, after 21 previously successful attempts. And then the season was over.
United had overcome their semi-final hoodoo under Solskjær, reaching their first final after falling at the semi-final stage on four previous occasions. They had reached the Champions League for the second season, seemingly stabilizing the team in the top four with consecutive finishes in those coveted Champions League spots. They have raised the standard of performances over the three seasons Solskjær has been in charge and have even reached a European final. The next step seems to be the issue.
Many still believe that Ole Gunnar Solskjær is not fit for the United job and this most recent result should convince the club to give him his marching orders. There are some very attractive candidates on the market right now, as Antonio Conte, Zinedine Zidane and others are now without jobs. Such a decision will be slightly harsh on Solskjær when he has shown improvement in a number of areas since he took over and maybe more importantly, break the continuity that United have finally been able to achieve after quite a bit of instability following Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure.
Even though Ole’s team seems to be taking their steps slowly and learning a lot of lessons the hard way, they have eventually reached, in my eyes, the point of no return. Especially in relation to Solskjær’s future. This summer will be crucial and there are some very identifiable gaps in the squad that need to be addressed.
Regardless of who comes in though Ole has shown that he can take this team to the cusp of success and it will be tough to find more excuses to persist with him if he cannot clinch that success next season. Trophies are constantly demanded at a club like Manchester United and Solskjær has engineered a good platform from which he can begin to bring in those trophies. If that process does not begin next season, United would be best served handing that platform over to another manager to take this side to the next level.
By: Wepea Buntugu
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Matthew Peters – Man United