Manchester United, perhaps, will think it was unlucky. It will think of the welter of chances it missed at the beginning of the second half. It may wonder whether things might have been different had it not been for fatigue, had it had a more straightforward end to the season – or had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer rotated more. And perhaps it would have a point. But Sevilla’s progress to the Europa League final via a 2-1 victory also exposed familiar flaws in Solskjaer’s side.
This is very much Sevilla’s competition. It has won it five times since 2006 and is already the most successful side in the competition’s history. It rode its luck to an extent here — this certainly wasn’t anything like the beating it handed out to Jose Mourinho’s United two years ago — but it was incisive in wide areas and, when called upon to defend, it did so with discipline and courage. It will face either Inter or Shakhtar in Friday’s final.
For United, there was a sense that this is a season that has dwindled to anti-climax. It has finished far more strongly than seemed likely in January, and it did achieve its primary objective of qualifying for next season’s Champions League. But it was poor in the FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea, it rather limped over the line in the league, and it was wasteful both against F.C. Copenhagen in the quarterfinal and here. And the end result is the club's third consecutive trophy-less season.
United went ahead after nine minutes with yet another penalty, its 22nd of the season. There’s been much grumbling about the frequency with which it is awarded penalties, but if you have fast forwards who break into the box, they do often get fouled. There was little doubt about this one – albeit it’s the sort of foul that is often missed. Marcus Rashford’s shot had been saved when Diego Carlos clattered into him. Bruno Fernandes, who hasn’t missed a penalty since 2016, scored his eighth from the spot for United.
At that point, United seemed in control, regularly getting in behind the Sevilla fullbacks. But the advantage of having fullbacks who push on gradually became increasingly apparent as the half went on. Lucas Ocampos, who had headed in the winner against Wolves, released Sergio Reguilón down the left and his cross was turned in at the back post by former Liverpool midfielder Suso.
But United kept wasting chances, particularly on the break. Rashford, in particular, has seemed weirdly short of confidence this past three or four weeks. Solskjaer is a manager who likes to play on the break, but he is also one who eschews practiced patterns of play in the final third, preferring to let players improvise. And that means that if any player’s decision-making drops for any reason, the tendency will always be to overplay or to be caught in two minds because the right option isn’t automatic.
The pattern of the second half was very different, as United took control. For a quarter of an hour it bombarded the Sevilla goal, but the goalkeeper Bono and various defenders managed to keep getting something on the way. With each passing opportunity, United became more unsettled. Rashford was booked for flinging the ball down, Mason Greenwood repeatedly tried to do too much. The composure that marks out the very best sides disappeared, weariness set in and Sevilla took advantage.
When it came, the winner was almost laughably simple. This time it was the other fullback Jesus Navas, once of Manchester City, who found space to cross beyond Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and Luuk De Jong, weirdly unmarked as Victor Lindelof was caught dozing, nodded in. The angry exchange that followed between Bruno Fernandes and Lindelof spoke of the Portuguese midfielder’s frustration.
And that has been the troubling undercurrent even in Solskjaer’s blessed period from February onwards — in which time this was only a second defeat. There have been occasional defensive aberrations and United has understandably been linked with numerous targets to partner Harry Maguire. And the forward line, potent as it is in full flow, is susceptible to glitches because it doesn’t have those practiced moves to fall back on. That, really, has been the big doubt about Solskjaer from the start.
Although it may be the bigger issue is simply the number of players in the squad in who he has faith. With three or four more signings, fatigue would be less of an issue, and those out of form could be rotated. So the season ends with United feeling much more buoyant than it did at the turn of the year, but having not quite lived up to what seemed possible a month ago.