Success is the great validator. For Manchester United, this season came down to the 22nd penalty of a shootout. The previous 21 in Wednesday's Europa League final had been scored when David De Gea saw his effort saved by Gero Rulli—who had scored what wound up being Villarreal's decisive kick with the previous attempt. As Villarreal celebrated the first major European trophy in its history, and Unai Emery chalked up his fourth Europa League title after three with Sevilla, United’s run without silverware was extended to four years. The sense of drift goes on.
The 1-1 draw and penalty kick perseverance marked a triumph for Emery and his revenge on English football after his miserable time with Arsenal (with whom he had lost a Europa League final), but it was impossible to avoid the sense that United had also underperformed. In 120 minutes, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side mustered just three shots on target.
The first half hour had been bitty and scrappy, which was probably just as Villarreal had wanted it. United dominated possession without ever really looking like doing much with it, the absence of Fred from the middle perhaps affecting its rhythm as Paul Pogba moved from the left into the center. And then, Villarreal did what Emery teams at their best are so good at doing: taking the lead with what was effectively its first meaningful attack, as Dani Parejo’s free kick was poked in by Gerard Moreno. It was his 30th goal of the season in all competitions and his 82nd for the club, equalling the record held by Giuseppe Rossi.
But while Parejo’s delivery was ideal, United contributed significantly to its downfall. Without Harry Maguire, the victim of an ankle injury, United looked shambolic at the back, with Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly an unconvincing pairing. The fault on the goal, though, appeared to be that of Luke Shaw, who let Moreno run off him, although Lindelof was then slow to react as Bailly was blocked off by Raul Albiol.
Throughout Solskjaer’s two-and-a-half years in the job, the most consistent theme tactically has been United’s struggles against sides who sit deep against it. On the break, Man United can be devastating, but it needs space to attack. The game this most resembled was the Europa League semifinal against Sevilla last season when, again, it found it hard to create space and generate chances against a disciplined opponent. This has been a constant, and it helps explain United’s apparent inconsistency and why its away form in the league is so much better than at Old Trafford.
United’s lack of options from the bench, which had also been a feature of that Sevilla game, was apparent here as well. United didn’t bring on a single substitute until the 10th minute of extra time, less it seemed because those on the pitch were playing especially well than because the potential alternatives were so sparse. Marcus Rashford, in particularly, looked weary and out of sorts, but was asked to slog on.
But United has come from behind to win in 12 games this season, 10 in the Premier League. And Solskjaer is rarely shy of talking about events of 22 years ago to the day, when United scored twice in injury time to come from behind against Bayern Munich to win the Champions League. And just like that night, an equalizer came, unexpectedly, from a corner. United had perhaps shown signs of being slightly less disjointed after the break, but it was still far from exerting consistent pressure when a corner fell for Edinson Cavani in the box and he swept the ball home. But there was no subsequent surge; just more scratchiness.
Solskjaer did eventually turn to his bench, but the most striking substitution was the one he didn’t make. He could have brought on Dean Henderson, who has saved six penalties in the last five years, for De Gea, who has not saved one since April 2016. By the end, he had let in the last 36 penalties he had faced in competitive games. That, like Fred coming on for Mason Greenwood, felt like a failure of nerve.
It’s not entirely clear how much can be read into this weirdest of seasons, and it’s far from obvious whether the past year can or cannot be considered a success for United. On the one hand, it closed the gap on the top of the table from 33 points to 12, gathering eight more points itself, but there have been weird lapses, and the problems against sides who sit deep have not gone away. Much of United’s improvement can be directly attributed to the exceptional goalscoring form of Cavani, which is not indicative of any structural improvement.
There is still very little sense of a plan, just counterattacks and waiting for somebody brilliant to do something brilliant. And that, in modern football, is rarely enough.
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