Manchester United’s season has ended in failure in Gdansk, as plucky Villarreal first took a surprise lead, then stifled and stymied the English side before winning on penalties.
That Manchester United let the game get to the lottery of a shoot out is a sad indictment of just how bad they were on a night where they looked to take the next step in the ‘progress’ that has been bandied about for the past two seasons.
Make no mistake - United were poor, and Villarreal fully deserves their first-ever European trophy.
Captain for the night Bruno Fernandes was anonymous in the first half, but came to life after the break. Paul Pogba, who has often complained that he wants to be in a position to win trophies contributed nothing towards lifting one tonight, was rightfully substituted. Marcus Rashford was so wasteful he most likely only stayed on the pitch due to his penalty-taking abilities.
United’s manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer also struggled on the big stage, and was out-duelled tactically by Unai Emery, who now has four Europa League medals in his back pocket.
Mason Greenwood, arguably United’s best player and big threat alongside Edinson Cavani, was substituted after 100 minutes for the ineffective Fred.
With United chasing the game and needing a goal, the likes of Juan Mata, Amad, and Donny van de Beek all remained rooted to the bench, with Daniel James preferred when Pogba was finally withdrawn.
When the game moved to penalties, Villareal seemed to have all the luck at the coin toss, first winning the toss for choice of ends, then the toss to take the first penalty.
While Emery was fired up and injected his enthusiasm into his heroes, Solskjaer was passive at best, preferring his team to find their own motivation.
In one of the stranger penalty shootouts in recent memory, not one save was made as both teams scored a perfect 10 before the goalkeepers stepped up.
Villarreal’s keeper Geronimo Rulli had been unlucky not to save several penalties, most notably from Luke Shaw, stepped up and struck his penalty with confidence.
Then, with the trophy on the line, up stepped David de Gea.
The Spaniard hadn’t come close to making a save, and in what could turn out his last kick as United’s keeper, shot tamely. His shot was saved by Rulli, and pandemonium broke out in the stands and on the pitch as a jubilant Villareal team celebrated climbing to the top of their European mountain.
After the match, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer claimed his team didn’t show up - which is a sad indictment on how he prepared his team for a cup final. On the pitch, it was clear to see that it meant the world to the men from Spain, while United’s eleven didn’t really look bothered one way or another.
“We didn’t turn up. We didn’t play as well we know we can do. We started alright, but they got the goal, the only shot they had on target they score. I was disappointed we conceded a goal again on a set-play. We pushed, we pressed but after we scored we couldn’t control the game and dominate as well as we wanted. That is football at times. They made it hard for us and closed the spaces. We had the majority of possession and they defended well. We didn’t create enough big chances.”
“Now is not the time to point the finger on what I would have done different, but when you come out with no trophy you have not done everything right.”
“We are getting closer and closer and better. We are one kick away today from having a trophy and having a good night. But we have got to have the desire to come back next year and improve and get better, and that will be about the margins. The only way to get the margins on your side is to work harder and better.”
“We need to get better, as simple as. We have done really well this season coming through the start was really difficult. We had no pre-season whatsoever and lost three of the first six games, all of them at home. We pushed in the league, maybe got closer to the top than we thought and we got to a final, but you need to win these finals to make it a good season.”
“You've got to be strong. You've got to learn from failure. You've got to learn from disappointment, because it’s a lesson. It’s a lesson that we’re not still where we want to be. We’re still not at the quality we want to be. We go away now. Some have the Euros, some have the holidays. The one thing that’s definite is that everyone has to come back with a desire to improve and I’m sure they will have this feeling for a couple of days and come back stronger,” said the manager.
Before the match, with United overwhelming favourites, all the talk was how a trophy would act as a springboard to future success. With that opportunity gone, one wonders how far they will sink next season.
After being tactically beaten on the pitch and failing to get his side motivated off it, Solskjaer has shown he is the right man to help steady a ship, but not to get his team over the hump.
Earlier in the day Antonio Conte and Zinedine Zidane both resigned from their posts, and these two serial winners could both be the men needed to help United take that next step in their ‘progress’ on the pitch.
The door is open to level up, will the United brass walk through it?