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Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer of Manchester United reacts after losing the UEFA Europa League final soccer match between Villarreal CF and Manchester United in Gdansk, Poland, 26 May 2021. Villarreal CF vs Manchester United, Gdansk, Poland - Kacper Pempel/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock 

Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer of Manchester United reacts after losing the UEFA Europa League final soccer match between Villarreal CF and Manchester United in Gdansk, Poland, 26 May 2021. Villarreal CF vs Manchester United, Gdansk, Poland – Kacper Pempel/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Over the course of 90 minutes and extra time, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could have made six game-altering substitutions against Villarreal in Wednesday’s Europa League final. Instead, he gave just one player more than five minutes to make an impact. That player was Fred, a defensive midfielder, and he replaced Mason Greenwood.

As the dust settles on United’s dramatic penalty shootout defeat, it is this indecision and hesitation from their bench that seems so hard to understand. Yes, penalties can go either way. But there is surely no way that United should have allowed the game to reach that stage without at least putting Villarreal under sustained pressure.

For almost the entirety of extra time, United played like a team without energy or ideas. They had control of the game for much of the second half, but they let that control slip as Unai Emery’s side introduced fresh legs at the end of normal time. Emery had made five substitutions by the 88th minute. Solskjaer, by contrast, waited until the 100th minute to introduce Fred and did not make another change until the 115th minute.

It raises the question: what could Solskjaer have possibly been seeing that made him think no changes were necessary? Bruno Fernandes was anonymous, shackled by Villarreal’s compact system. Marcus Rashford continuously made the wrong decision in the final third. Edinson Cavani looked increasingly exhausted as the game wore on. If anything, United’s most dangerous player was Greenwood — and it was Greenwood who came off.

Marcus Rashford of Manchester United reacts after a missed chance during the UEFA Europa League Final between Villarreal CF and Manchester United at Gdansk Arena on May 26, 2021 in Gdansk, Poland -  Tullio Puglia - UEFAMarcus Rashford of Manchester United reacts after a missed chance during the UEFA Europa League Final between Villarreal CF and Manchester United at Gdansk Arena on May 26, 2021 in Gdansk, Poland -  Tullio Puglia - UEFA

Marcus Rashford of Manchester United reacts after a missed chance during the UEFA Europa League Final between Villarreal CF and Manchester United at Gdansk Arena on May 26, 2021 in Gdansk, Poland – Tullio Puglia – UEFA

What a reflection this was of Solskjaer’s faith in his squad players. If this was not the time to use the speed of Daniel James, in extra time against tiring opposition legs, then when is? Could Juan Mata offer no additional creativity, at a moment when it was desperately needed? Could Donny van de Beek, a £35 million international midfielder, not help United to keep the ball and regain control of the match?

Ultimately, it did not need a penalty shootout to determine which manager had the upper hand on the evening. Emery, a figure of so much unfair ridicule from English football supporters, demonstrated all of his cup-final experience across the course of the night, issuing another reminder of his considerable coaching ability.

The Spaniard’s critics might scoff at the defensive nature of his team’s showing, claiming that he took a negative approach. A brief glance at his team, though, provides ample justification for his tactical plan. Emery’s side included Juan Foyth (unwanted by Tottenham Hotspur), Francis Coquelin (unwanted by Arsenal), Alberto Moreno (unwanted by Liverpool) and Etienne Capoue, who was a Watford player at the start of this season.

As for Villarreal as a collective, they finished seventh in La Liga this season. This was the first major trophy in their history. Against the might of United, they had every right to play with a safety-first attitude.

The fourth Europa League title of Emery’s career, and his first trophy since he was sacked by Arsenal, provides redemption for a coach who found himself in a chaotic place at a chaotic time in north London. This win will not ease the doubts over his ability to manage the biggest egos, and to do so in a foreign language, but it does go a long way to restoring his damaged reputation.

Emery’s greatest achievement on the night was shutting down the threat of Fernandes, who offered so little over the 120 minutes. Villarreal packed the midfield areas, restricting the space for United’s playmaker and forcing Solskjaer’s side to push the ball into harmless wide positions.

Whenever Rashford or Greenwood attempted to dart inside, they were met by a wall of yellow shirts. At one point in the first half, three Villarreal players tackled Greenwood at once, swarming towards the teenager as he tried to work the ball onto his left foot. And when United went wide, centre-backs Raul Albiol and Pau Torres were there to clear their crosses.

It was mainly after their first-half goal, scored by Gerard Moreno, that Villarreal adopted this more deep-lying position. When Cavani equalised for United, it looked for a short while as if they might be stuck there, unable to work their way back up the pitch. And yet Emery’s early substitutions helped to ease the pressure and return some balance to the match.

All the while, Solskjaer waited to make changes of his own. What was he waiting for? Only he will know. For some time now, this United team has been accused of being too reactive, too slow to seize the initiative in games and dominate their opponent. The second half of this European final, and the subsequent 30 minutes of extra time, provided them with the perfect opportunity to show that criticism to be unfair. Instead, on the biggest night of their season, they only reinforced it.

Man Utd’s squad players – stay or go?

By Ian Whittell

As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer waited until deep into extra-time to make the first of the six replacements he could have made in the Europa League Final, it suggested he had no faith in the depth of his squad.

Here, we look at the players he ignored and their futures at Old Trafford…

Juan Mata, 33

The Spanish international is a popular figure at the club but has seen his involvement drop off dramatically this season. Solskjaer has avoided answering the question directly but appears certain not to offer the attacking midfielder a new contract when his current one expires next month. At least his last act was scoring in the penalty shoot-out.
Verdict: Go

Lee Grant, 38

The veteran keeper never figured in the Premier League and will be leaving the club this summer. Former Burnley and Aston Villa keeper Tom Heaton is being added to offer cover as third- (or possibly second-?) choice cover.
Verdict: Go

Fred, 28

Injury picked up against Fulham a week earlier denied Fred a start in Gdansk, and Solskjaer’s post-match comments proved he effectively considers the Brazilian, and Scott McTominay, his first-choice midfield pairing. Whether or not such faith is well-founded is debatable. The 28 year-old has seldom lived up to his £52 million price tag even if he has improved notably over the past couple of years under Solskjaer. Still has a significant role to play in United’s plans.
Verdict: Stay

Amad Diallo, 18

Signed for £19m in January, the teenager has always been talked about as a long-term project and United have been pleased with his progress over the first five months of his Old Trafford career, not least the spectacular goal he scored against Milan in the Europa League. He was never going to be expected to come on and change the tide in a European final after making just two starts in his United career, both of those when Solskjaer fielded shadow teams at the end of the season. With Anthony Martial stagnating and possibly moving on, the time is right for him to take strides over the next two seasons.
Verdict: Stay

Dan James, 23

There were enough fleeting moments during the season from the Wales international to suggest that he may have a role moving forward as a squad player at United but the fact that Solskjaer did not feel he could make an impact in the Final spoke to his limitations. James is at the point where it would make sense for United to offload him if the deal is right, and especially if Jadon Sancho adds to their depth in the wide attacking positions this summer. If not, having seen his league starts drop from 26 to 11 this season, his role moving forward will remain as squad man and cover.
Verdict: Stay/Go

Dean Henderson, 24

The goalkeeper position remains one of Solskjaer’s biggest summer headaches. Having finally given the England international a run of games towards the end of the season, the jury is out on just how well he accepted the challenge and whether he, or David De Gea, ended the season as Solskjaer’s first choice. What appears likely is that one of those two will not be happy with the status quo and could be set to leave this summer. In Gdansk, however, given Henderson’s obvious penalty-saving superiority to De Gea, it begged the question whether Solskjaer should have brought him on for the shoot-out.
Verdict: Go (or stay if De Gea goes)

Alex Telles, 28

The stunning improvements, and durability, shown by Luke Shaw this season make the Brazilian very much second choice left-back at United as a figure of only eight league starts this season testifies. Having only arrived from Porto last October, Telles may be content to wait and see if that situation changes and Solskjaer needs cover given Shaw’s history record, but if United need to raise money, or package players as part of a possible Harry Kane exchange deal, this summer then Telles might be one to sacrifice.
Verdict: Go

Nemanja Matic, 32

Under contract until 2023, the veteran was a willing and able squad man this season, offering cover and rest for Solskjaer’s holding midfielders, but the days of the Serbian being an integral part and driving force of a Premier League contender are long behind him. He was certainly never going to impact a European final and, given what will be a healthy Old Trafford salary, would not appear a particularly saleable asset.
Verdict: Stay

Brandon Williams, 20

The full-back definitely took a backward step this season although, at only 20, he is presumably young enough to arrest that slide. Injuries presented Williams with 11 league starts in an impressive first full season last year but his only two starts of this campaign came in the final days when Solskjaer made 10 changes. He looks likely to be kept around, give the lack of depth in the full-back positions, but next season looks like being a pivotal one for him.
Verdict: Stay

Donny van de Beek, 24

One of the big conundrums of United’s season and one of the big issues Solskjaer faces this summer. Signed for £36m last summer, big things were expected of the Dutch international… and never materialised. His biggest problem lies in the fact that Bruno Fernandes has become such a force that there is no prospect of him competing for his place and he has proved less than effective in other roles. Only four league starts this season tells its own damning story. A good Euros from Van de Beek and United may choose to cut their losses.
Verdict: Go

Axel Tuanzebe, 23

No longer a “kid”, Tuanzebe never let Solskjaer down when used this season but the jury is out on whether he has made sufficient progress since impressing in an 18-month loan spell with Aston Villa in the Championship in 2018. As Solskjaer’s Final selection suggested, he is very much fourth choice behind Harry Maguire, Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, although the performances of the last two beg the question why. If United were to sign a central defender this summer, he might be sacrificed.
Verdict: Stay/Go

Anthony Martial, 25

Not fit enough to make the bench in Gdansk and a player whose United career is very much at a crossroads. Injuries limited him to just four league goals in 17 starts this season and the form of Edinson Cavani – plus the prospect of United bringing in a big-name striker – suggests Solskjaer may have made up his mind about the France international. If money needs to be raised, or players packaged to make up a blockbuster £100m-plus deal for a Harry Kane or Erling Haaland, Martial would most likely top the list.
Verdict: Go