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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Explained: How Solskjaer’s mistakes hurt Manchester United in Europa final

From an ultra-cautious approach, to dithering on substitutions and most importantly, a wrong goalkeeper choice for the penalty shootout, Manchester United fell prey to their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s mistakes against Villarreal in the Europa League final.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: May 28, 2021 7:43:49 am
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after the Europa League Final match (Photo: Pool via REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

From an ultra-cautious approach, to dithering on substitutions and most importantly, a wrong goalkeeper choice for the penalty shootout, Manchester United fell prey to their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s mistakes against Villarreal in the Europa League final. The result was another trophy-less season, four on the spin now. This is how Solskjaer’s errors contributed to United’s defeat.

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Was it a mistake to have David De Gea in goal for the shootout?

Throughout the season, Solskjaer has rotated De Gea and Dean Henderson for the goalkeeper’s position. De Gea’s excellent performance in the second-leg semifinal against Roma made him almost an automatic pick for the final. But the Spaniard’s poor penalty-saving record made him the team’s weak link in the shootout.

As mentioned by Manchester Evening News, De Gea hasn’t saved a penalty for United after the 2016 FA Cup semi-final against Everton. Henderson, on the other hand, had denied Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus while on loan at Sheffield United last season. Stats put out by Project Football show that Henderson’s career penalty success rate is 42 per cent compared to De Gea’s 17 per cent.

At the 2014 World Cup, then Holland manager Louis van Gaal had swapped his goalkeepers on 120 minutes, sending on Tim Krul for Jasper Cillessen during the quarterfinal against Costa Rica. It proved to be a masterstroke. Van Gaal later managed United also.

As for Solskjaer, he had the advantage of making five substitutions – plus one more during the extra-time – but he stuck with De Gea. “.. it (Henderson’s introduction) had crossed my mind in the build-up to the game, but we were confident in David and prepared,” he said post-match.

Was Solskjaer ultra-cautious?

United were playing against a side that finished seventh in the La Liga this term. Unai Emery’s Villarreal were always going to employ a low-block against their more fancied opponents. Once they took the lead through a set-play, the Spanish side sat deep, at times playing almost a flat-back-seven.

The Scott McTominay and Fred double-pivot at the base of midfield has been Solskjaer’s go-to method this season. Fred didn’t start the final, for he was injured in the lead-up and had only one full training session coming into the game. But Solskjaer didn’t ditch his favoured double-pivot, pairing up Paul Pogba with McTominay instead. It crippled Pogba’s forward play when his team needed his creativity in the final-third against a low-block. As per the match stats on the official Europa League app, Pogba’s runs into attacking-third were restricted to four only.

By the time Pogba was pushed up, deep into the extra-time first-half, his legs were gone. He was eventually substituted. United’s talisman this season, Bruno Fernandes, wasn’t having a good game. And yet, Solskjaer didn’t allow Pogba to freewheel in the attacking-third. His team suffered.

Did Solskjaer dither on substitutions?

For someone, who was a super-sub as a player and scored the winning goal for United in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich with virtually the last kick of the game, dithering on substitutions as a manager has time and again become Solskjaer’s bugbear. Last season, during United’s Europa League semifinal defeat to Sevilla, he waited until the 87th minute before making his first substitution. On Wednesday, against Villarreal, Solskjaer made his first change on 100 minutes, replacing the lively Mason Greenwood with Fred. The 19-year-old Greenwood made four runs into the attacking-third, ran into the penalty area four times, made five incisive passes and had a pass accuracy of 81 per cent, as per the Europa League app match stats.

Marcus Rashford, on the contrary, was off-colour on the night and trailed Greenwood on every statistical count. Twenty-two years ago, Solskjaer’s match-winner against Bayern was down to his manager Alex Ferguson’s proactive approach. After United had equalised on the first minute of the added time in the second half, Ferguson decisively instructed his team to press forward, ignoring his assistant Carlos Queiroz’s advice to reorganise defence. Risk-taking had worked to United’s advantage. Solskjaer had Donny van de Beek, Juan Mata and Amad on the bench. His risk-aversion blighted United.

“We felt the players out there… You’ve got Mason and Marcus, match-winners in their own right,” Solskjaer defended his decision post-match. Emery, on the other hand, made five substitutions inside the regulation 90 minutes, introduced fresh legs and wrested the initiative, when United had gained the upper hand in the second half.

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Will Solskjaer be under pressure after this?

Tottenham sacked Jose Mourinho on the heels of the team’s Europa League defeat to Dinamo Zagreb. But thanks to United’s second-place finish in the Premier League, Solskjaer’s job is not under immediate threat. However, as United legend Gary Neville pointed out, it has now become imperative for the side to start strong next season. The former United captain has also lashed out at the team’s inconsistency.

“You can’t switch performance on and off like a tap. Haven’t played well for weeks and last night a continuation of the form recently. Pressure will be applied to Ole and the team. Rightly so. Need to get it right this summer and a good start to next season needed badly!” Neville tweeted.

Solskjaer will go into the final year of his three-year contract next term, although according to reports, the details of his contract extension are being finalised. The manager has asked for backing from the owners in the summer transfer window. Trophy-less until now, the next season could be make-or-break for Solskjaer.

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