Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's biggest Manchester United weakness was exposed in the Europa League final

Man Utd lost the Europa League to Villarreal 11-10 on penalties and it was a night when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's management came under the...

Man Utd lost the Europa League to Villarreal 11-10 on penalties and it was a night when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's management came under the spotlight

Solskjaer's slow subs hurt United

By the time Ole Gunnar Solskjaer finally made his first sub in this game Unai Emery had already made five. The Villarreal boss used that full allocation inside normal time, while Solskjaer didn't turn to his bench until the clock was about to tick over on to 100 minutes.

Even when that change arrived it was greeted with universal bemusement. Mason Greenwood had been one of Manchester United's best players on the night but he was the man hooked for Fred, while a clearly exhausted and underwhelming Marcus Rashford somehow stayed on.

The idea of bringing more energy into midfield made plenty of sense but the decision to take Greenwood off was the wrong one. The faith invested in Rashford was through hope more than anything else Solskjaer had seen on the night.

This was another night when Solskjaer's use of the bench only led to questions. He left it too long to bring on fresh legs as United tired and then made the wrong changes as well. The decision to take Pogba off when he has a track record of taking penalties and handling pressure was bizarre.

The focus will fall on the lack of options sitting behind the manager, but Alex Telles, Donny van de Beek, Daniel James and Amad were all signed by Solskjaer. The latter might still be a teenager but Van de Beek and James should have had something to offer as those who started the game tired.

There was a moment in United's hugely underwhelming first-half in Gdansk when Villarreal's teenage winger Yeremi Pino was crowded out in the penalty area by Luke Shaw and Edinson Cavani, the 34-year-old striker running beyond his midfielders to try and win the ball back for his team.

It's the kind of energy and desire that we have become accustomed to from Cavani, who is a 34-year-old with the legs and lungs of someone 10 years younger. The contrast between the speed of United's press when Cavani is leading the line, to when Anthony Martial was doing so, is remarkable.

But as well as that drive Cavani brings class to United as well. He remains a world-class striker, as his goal against Fulham eight days ago proved. His equaliser in the final made it 17 goals in his first season for the club.

That equaliser showed why he is such a good striker as well. So often we see a corner or free-kick cleared and forwards walk out. As soon as the ball was cleared Cavani sprinted out, desperate to get back on side, just in case the ball came back in and fell to him. That desire was rewarded.

Rashford's place is under threat

Had Fred been fit to start this final then Solskjaer would have almost certainly had to decide between Rashford or Greenwood to start on the right of United's attack.

For all the bravado after picking Paul Pogba in midfield being a more adventurous approach from United, it only came about due to Fred's absence. Solskjaer has rarely deviated from the Fred-McTominay axis in big games and had they both been fit they'd have started in Gdansk.

But Fred's absence allowed Rashford and Greenwood both to start and in terms of a contest between United's two wide men, it was a no contest. Rashford has been off the boil for the final few weeks of the season and he struggled throughout against Villarreal. There was one wonderful piece of skill in the first half, but Greenwood was the most consistent threat and he looked the more sure-footed player.

If Pogba remains in situ on the left of United's front three next season then Greenwood and Rashford might have to get used to competing with each other. If Jadon Sancho signs the competition will be even more fierce. On recent evidence, Rashford could be fearing for his place in this side come the start of next season.

McTominay's crucial contribution

Cavani took the glory for United's equaliser, but the contribution of Scott McTominay shouldn't be forgotten. The academy graduate was the beating heart of United's recovery in the second half, driving forward deliriously from midfield as he sought to drag his team back into the game.

When the ball fell to him inside the penalty area from one attack he was surrounded by yellow shirts, but still managed to show the ingenuity and energy to turn and get a shot away, winning a corner that turned out to be incredibly precious.

It was from that corner that Cavani fired in an equaliser after the ball had broken to him. The Uruguayan grabbed the ball from the net and raced back to halfway, rather than celebrating another decisive contribution in front of goal. But he owed a nod of appreciation to McTominay on the way back for the restart.

It was fitting that McTominay played a role in the goal that took the game to penalties. He was easily United's best player on the night, producing what was one of his best performances for the club. There is plenty of desire for United to sign a new defensive midfielder, but that should be to play alongside McTominay, rather than replace him. His all-round game is superior to Fred's.

Set-piece shambles

There was something grimly appropriate about United conceding the opening goal in a European final in such a dreadful manner, given set-pieces have been a frailty for them all season.

This was the 61st game of the campaign for United and while time on the training ground has been limited during 2020/21 due to the demanding schedule, they've shown absolutely no signs of improvement in defending set-pieces from September to May.

It's a video nasty for United this season when it comes to watching back the goals they've conceded. In the Premier League alone there 14 conceded from set plays, a tally 'beaten' only by the 15 of Leeds United.

That familiar weakness cost Solskjaer's side again in Gdansk. As Gerard Moreno moved on to Dani Parejo's free-kick Victor Lindelof was clutching at the striker's shirt, having been brushed aside far too easily. Lindelof is a solid central defender but a weakness of, well, being weak, is all too common. He doesn't take much bullying at a set-piece.

But this is an issue United have had all season to solve. That they still remain so determinedly poor at defending set-pieces reflects poorly on the defence, the goalkeeper and the coaching staff. This is a collective failing.



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GistLobby⚽: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's biggest Manchester United weakness was exposed in the Europa League final
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's biggest Manchester United weakness was exposed in the Europa League final
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