As David De Gea’s tame penalty was saved by Gerónimo Rulli, and as Villareal’s players celebrated their Europa League triumph, so too did Manchester United’s season go up in smoke. After a remarkable 11-10 defeat on penalties in the final, coach Ole Gunnar Solskjær lost the chance to earn his first trophy as Manchester United manager, and although it was a heartbreaking way to lose, United really should have beaten Villareal in 120 minutes.
“We didn’t turn up,” Solskjær reflected after the match. “We didn’t play as well as we know we can. We started alright and they got the goal, their only shot on target. We were disappointed to concede a goal on a set play. We pushed, we pressed, we got a goal. After we scored we didn’t control the game or dominate as we wanted.
“That’s football for you. Sometimes it’s decided on one kick — and that’s the difference between winning and losing.”
While United were left to rue the fine margins of success in football, the reality is that Solskjær did not get the best out of his team in the most important match of the season — a game where United were the heavy favourites on the bet exchange. Now, questions are being asked as to whether Solskjær is still the best-suited coach to guide the club forward.
Of course, the club have been unequivocal in their support of the Norwegian, handing him an improved three-year deal in the days since the Europa League final. But that will not stop the debate raging on as to whether Solskjær really has what it takes to bring the good times back to Old Trafford. He has certainly performed better than expected in the league this season, and if he they had lifted the Europa League trophy in Gdańsk, then it could have been called a successful season.
As it is, the club have experienced four barren campaigns as far as silverware is concerned, and while a second-place finish in the Premier League this year is a marked improvement, United were still streets behind champions Manchester City in terms of both points and quality of football. With esteemed coaches like Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel vying for the title, it’s hard to see how Solskjær could come out on top if a close-fought title race was to develop next season.
When he took the job on a temporary basis following the departure of José Mourinho in 2018, he was seen as a stop-gap before the club appointed someone with a better reputation in club football, and with more experience of managing Europe’s biggest clubs. That is what Solskjær lacks, and it’s not an unfair assertion to suggest that United will struggle to win major honours with a coach who is essentially learning on the job.
Next season, you’d expect both Liverpool and Chelsea to challenge City more closely, and there is a risk that United could get left behind. Many of the Premier League’s top clubs underperformed this season, but with a full pre-season ahead, you’d expect other teams to make life very difficult for Manchester United.
Since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, the club have not been able to find a manager capable of instilling the same winning mentality, and the jury is still very much out on Solskjær’s ability to bring the biggest titles back to Manchester United’s trophy cabinet.