When Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer announced his team against Villareal in the Europa League final, it seemed like a bold, attacking one. But at the end of the night, United left Gdansk without the trophy and with Solskjaer’s credentials as the man capable of steering United back to their former glory once again being questioned.
Fair criticism or is it too easy to scapegoat the manager?
The Athletic’s Laurie Whitwell summed it up. ‘Silverware beckoned for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but this was not a good game for his management,’ the reporter said.
‘Squad quality needs to be deeper but Villarreal were very beatable.’
Painful end to the season for Manchester United.
Silverware beckoned for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but this was not a good game for his management.
Squad quality needs to be deeper but Villarreal were very beatable.
Only the Europa? Agony clear on all players' faces.#MUFC
— Laurie Whitwell (@lauriewhitwell) May 26, 2021
There are a few key criticisms of the Norwegian that need to be examined:
(1) He made a mistake selecting David de Gea for the game.
The boss’s indecision about who is his best keeper and his chopping and changing of the man between the sticks this season will not have helped defensive stability. Whether he had nailed his colours to the mast with De Gea or Henderson, he should have done so sooner.
In terms of last night’s game, the Spaniard has one of the worst penalty saving records in the Premier League and Henderson has one of the best. So a gutsy call from the manager would have been to bring the England man on for the shootout.
He brought on specialist penalty takers yet failed to bring in a specialist penalty saver, as Louis van Gaal did for Holland in the 2014 World Cup against Costa Rica.
(2) In two and a half years of managing United he has not figured out how to play against the low block.
When Villareal lined up with two blocks of four last night, it was clear that United were going to struggle. Putting the more creative Paul Pogba in deeper midfield, at the expense of Fred, should on paper have made it easier for the Red Devils to create chances. Yet despite 60% possession they only managed 2 shots on target in 120 minutes.
This was not against a world class side, this was against Villareal. The blame has to be laid at Solskjaer’s door for this one because if your argument is that the players let him down on the night, then he should have made substitutes much, much earlier on.
(3) He has failed to address United’s problems in defending set pieces.
Villareal’s only goal of the game came from a free kick. United have conceded close to twenty goals from set pieces in 2020/21 – fourteen in the Premier League alone – and the story was not much better last term. It does not seem to matter who is in goal and who are the centre backs. The issue is clearly not being addressed by the coaching staff at Old Trafford, making Solskjaer ultimately responsible.
(4) His substitutions were wrong.
This match was there to be won, but certain players were not performing. Marcus Rashford was a prime example. It was arguably the England man’s worst game in a United shirt. And yet he was left on the pitch for 120 minutes. The young, attacking legs of Mason Greenwood were sacrificed for the more defensive Fred at a time when United needed a goal.
With the game heading for penalties, a manager like Sir Alex Ferguson would probably have brought on a forward for a defender and ‘gone for it’. The more creative Donny van de Beek in midfield, the intelligence of Juan Mata further up the pitch. Solskjaer could even have thrown caution to the wind and rolled the dice with the mercurial Amad. But, as has been the case all through this season and through most of last, he exhibited zero confidence in his bench.
Of course, United’s bench could be stronger but Solskjaer’s opposite number, Unai Emery, trusted five players off his bench that would not even get close to the Manchester United squad.
(5) He paid the penalty for not rotating throughout the season
It was clear last night that key players such as Rashford, Fernandes and Pogba did not produce the magic of which they are capable. It may seem harsh to blame the manager for that one, but on the other hand, it could be argued that these players have played far too much football this season and are jaded. Following on from point (4) above, had Solskjaer used his squad better throughout the season, rotated more and given the likes of Van de Beek, Mata and Telles more football, those key players would have been fresher.
Of course, football is a game of fine margins and it would only have taken a moment of magic from United, or even a slip-up from a Villareal penalty-taker, for the Reds to have lifted the trophy and for Solskjaer to have been branded a hero. But you could also argue that all the above criticisms would still have stood even if that had happened.
Whichever way you look at it, as Whitwell said above, it was not a good game for Solskjaer’s management.