Sometimes in football you just don’t get what you deserve. This Manchester United side under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has an unerring capacity to deliver precisely what they deserve and to do so in a manner which leaves you in no doubt as to the issues and qualities they possess.
That much is true of both the squad and manager who this morning will be licking their wounds and reflecting on three excruciating hours in Gdansk which served as the summary to their season; an end-of-term report where United, required to perform an examination after handing in all of their coursework, showcased all of the problems that seem to be holding them back.
At one point towards the end of the first half, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looked on furiously, clearly disappointed with his team’s inability to get a grip on the match.
But why was he surprised? The Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly combination was proven not to work before he even took the job and has repeated the physical statement frequently during the last two and a half years.
As recently as two weeks ago against Liverpool, the mere selection instilled panic right through the team; yes, the loss of Harry Maguire was obviously a tough one to take, but United surely had better combinations available to them than having to resort to what they fielded against Villarreal.
It will be said in response that Axel Tuanzebe hasn’t played nearly enough and that is probably a fair retort, but the consequential rebuttal is that he should have done; instead, it seemed he was deemed culpable for the collective horror-show in Turkey and was dropped.
The reality is that the youngster’s performance was no worse than those around him and in a game of fine margins you could argue Solskjaer paid the price in both the concession of a poor goal and the laboured style of the attacking build up given that the centre-halves spent so much time on the ball.
It was Solskjaer who made that selection. He was right in his judgement that he would only need to play one holding midfielder even with the leaky defence but Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba played as two individuals and not a partnership.
With a porous and unsteady defence, and a midfield incapable of dictating the pace, the front four players drifted as though they were unattached from the rest of the team, save for the moments where Edinson Cavani in his frustration raced deep into midfield and defence to try and tether the eleven together.
Moreno’s goal for Villarreal was a typical goal that United concede – on initial viewing, you probably blame the wrong defender, and on repeats you only have the sad realisation that there is so much blame to go around that you really don’t need to make the point anymore.
It fit into Unai Emery’s game plan. Here is a manager familiar with this United squad and how easy it can be to render them toothless so there would have been no apology for creating a seventeen yard blob of custard that smothered the immobile forward line of Solskjaer’s team.
When Cavani’s fortuitous equaliser went in, the mood changed. United could grasp the nettle. It seemed as though there was no way they could lose. There was smarter, more vibrant movement. The players suddenly seemed to realise they were in a European final with a limited amount of time remaining. They could leave it all out there.
United’s second half performances have been strong this season. This was too. Luke Shaw was brilliant. Mason Greenwood lively. McTominay energetic. Cavani inspirational. But then you had Marcus Rashford, whose post-match blast was so savage that you almost wondered if he was getting in the first blows on his own performance before the press did.
You had Paul Pogba, who was at least willing, but simply unable. At least he was visible; it was a bad time to discover that one of Bruno Fernandes’ superpowers is the ability to disappear. Even when he did come into the game late on, it seemed indicative of the greater issue; that some of United’s big names were realising that you can’t simply turn the switch on and expect to turn on the style.
Emery’s game plan was sound. He could play with that wall of defence and know that United just don’t possess the sort of penetration and ingenuity to break through. He knew that the opposition defence was likely to implode and give up a chance so they didn’t have to risk too much to create one.
Emery’s use of substitutes was wise. Five new players with energy, introduced right at the time his team seemed to be flagging, changed the entire complexion of the match. United couldn’t galvanise themselves and Solskjaer had created an issue by selecting all of his best attacking options (on paper) from the start; there was nothing to change.
It seemed obvious that Rashford should have been withdrawn if just for mercy, but Solskjaer resisted, and in the sobering light of day we can look at the choices and again consider them. Amad looked promising against Wolves but was never likely to play. So too Van De Beek.
It was a moment Solskjaer had to take responsibility for. It’s certainly fair to complain about the situation the owners put him in last summer but that was roughly £80m (after all the instalments are paid) of acquisition from last year that didn’t spend a single minute on the pitch and – Amad’s fantastic introduction against Milan aside – could really not have featured this season and we’d have been none the wiser. So £80m was spent to come to that conclusion – was it really wiser to not spend that little more on a Jadon Sancho, a player who most certainly would have fixed one prominent issue?
Instead, there has been this growing sense that Rashford was just labouring through these last few weeks, a shadow of the player we know he can be. Solskjaer, in his insistence to stick with the familiarity of a 4-2-3-1, refused to budge.
You could call it trust in the players to deliver but if that is the case then this morning he is paying the price for that trust.
For this writer, Solskjaer has overseen progress in his time in charge. The second place finish was still not anywhere close enough to say we are proper challengers but still feels healthier than the same finish in 2018.
The outcome of yesterday’s final was always going to result in an overreaction from one section of the support – a win and those who are staunch ‘Ole inners’ would have used a Europa League against a very average La Liga side as proof of greater health than the reality. United could have won 2-0 yesterday and there would have been plenty of people willing to insist that the problems were either not as bad as we can see, or even there at all.
The defeat – and especially in the manner in which it has unfolded – is going to have Solskjaer facing as many questions as, if not more than, his players. The critics will question the selection. The lack of subs to truly influence the game when it mattered. The lack of changes in the game. The rigidity of the shape.
The ease with which United, for all their supposed star power, can be stifled out of a game in a manner which undermines any talk of a stable frame on which that attacking talent can flourish. That game could have gone on for twice as long – and sometimes it felt as though it might – and United would still have struggled to get another shot on target.
United had started the first half well. But at the moment where they needed to up the intensity, they became casual and started to drift out of the game. They couldn’t regain that momentum before half-time.
There are no off-moments for a Manchester United player. They’ve learned it the hard way. This isn’t a judgment or a criticism from the outside that might hurt a feeling or two – it’s a Cup Final, that they lost, because they weren’t good enough against a team they should have beaten. No hiding places.
So it was fitting, in a Machiavellian sort of way, that we were treated to an excruciating penalty shoot-out; and although theoretically it’s the one scenario where goalkeepers can’t look bad, this was the one occasion which did not reflect favourably on De Gea, who could have either stood still or chose to dive just one way for all eleven kicks and he would have gotten closer to some of them.
And it was a cruel twist of fate that it was his kick which was the decisive one; a player who has done so much for the club, at times saving it from being reduced to this sort of fate, now condemned to it too; though I have yet to peruse the headlines this morning, I can imagine they have not been too kind to the one consistently world class player United have had in their team in the post-Ferguson era.
Cup Finals, like penalty shoot-outs, are a lottery, but not so much that you can’t heavily weigh the odds in your favour. United were favourites for a reason but as we’ve seen time and time before, they were undone by a simple organised and disciplined team.
The nature of the defeat should not be shied away from. It is cruel and it is embarrassing and it is a reflection of where these players are, so, as Rashford says, some of them will have to use it as a reason to grow.
Rashford will be one of those players given the chance to. But he needs to get back to the early 2019/20 form, as for much of the last year he has struggled.
Elsewhere in the team and squad, this is where Solskjaer needs to be ruthless. I’ve said that before on this website and the podcast. It was always going to be the case that if he didn’t get rid of some of the players who weren’t good enough, that decision would eventually manifest itself. It came home to roost yesterday.
If he doesn’t do that this summer, then the inevitable future failures will be on him, and the critics will be right. It is a moment where Solskjaer needs to wield the axe, before he is hoisted by his own petard.
Make no bones about it – Manchester United got exactly what they deserved last night.
It was a deserved defeat, in astonishing fashion, against a relatively poor team; it was not prime Barcelona. So there can be no pretending that this is a prime Manchester United. There can be no pretending it is closer to being one than it is.
But as long as the players and manager use it as the learning experience it should be, instead of the old and tired ‘we go again’ trope, then it could turn out to be much more valuable than any win would have been.
De Gea 5