Manchester United fell to Villarreal in the Europa League final in the most dramatic of circumstances, losing a penalty shootout 11-10 at the end of extra time. Gerard Moreno put Villarreal ahead in the first half, before Edinson Cavani equalized after the break. With the scores level at full time and after an additional 30 minutes of extra time, Villarreal eventually sealed the victory when David de Gea’s spot kick — the 22nd of the shootout — was saved.
More often than not, Solskjaer has tended to be risk-averse in his team selections; he doesn’t throw young players in before he thinks they’re ready, and he doesn’t rotate trusted performers unless absolutely necessary. For the biggest match of his United managerial career so far, though, Solskjaer went bold. Scott McTominay and Paul Pogba in a double pivot broke up the trusted big game duo of McTominay and Fred, and removed the question of which of 3 forwards would take up the other two attacking spots around Bruno Fernandes in the middle and Pogba out wide. All three of Mason Greenwood, Marcus Rashford, and Edinson Cavani started in arguably the most attack-minded front 6 available. With the more adventurous Eric Bailly getting the nod at the back ahead of Axel Tuanzebe, Solskjaer’s team sheet was a statement of intent: United were going for it.
Any worries about United looking as physically jaded as they did at the tail end of the Premier League season were put to bed early. The Reds started on the front foot, dominating the early exchanges, and they were at least equal to Villarreal in contesting possession. United could not turn their superior share of the ball into meaningful scoring opportunities however, and had to settle for a handful of half-chances.
Villarreal had clearly done their homework, and their two compact banks of four successfully nullified the ability of United’s attackers to operate between the lines. On the other end of the pitch, Unai Emery’s game plan relied on Villarreal being able to counterattack effectively and take their chances on the break and from set pieces — which is exactly what happened at the half hour mark.
Cavani conceded a free kick in United’s half trying to stop a counter attack, and the resulting delivery was swung in with whip and precision. If United conceding from a set piece was no surprise, then the identity of the man who got on the end of it was no surprise either. Gerard Moreno has been a goal machine this season, and he put Villarreal in front when he muscled in behind Victor Lindelöf and finished beyond David De Gea’s reach.
United responded well to going behind, and continued to dominate proceedings for the rest of the half, but could find no way through Villarreal’s supreme defensive organization. The Reds entered the break having played well, but needing a tactical adjustment to find their way back into the game.
Within 3 minutes of the restart, United almost repeated their mistake. Another set piece created chaos in the box as multiple defenders in red failed to clear the ball. Fortunately for United, the ball was eventually cleared, and that scare seemed to wake them up. United got back on to the front foot, and in the 55th minute, their possession finally paid off.
A Luke Shaw corner was only cleared to feet of Rashford at the edge of the box, and while his shot was blocked, the ball rolled kindly into the path of Cavani. And as the Uruguayan has shown repeatedly in recent weeks, he has a nose for goal. Cavani flashed the ball into the net, and United were level with 35 minutes to go.
The equalizer energized United, who continued pushing for more goals. Shaw was getting more involved in the attack, and with Villarreal packing the middle, United were trying to create overloads in the wide areas. But while they continued to probe, quality chances were still hard to come by. Scott McTominay’s driving runs added a new element to United’s attack in the second half, but Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford — usually United’s most productive attackers — were both having frustrating nights.
Starting with your most attacking team available also means a necessary lack of attacking options off the bench. At the 90th minute mark, Villarreal had just made their fourth and fifth substitutions of the night. United had yet to make any. With the scores level at full time, the tie would then go into extra time.
Extra time was predictably uneventful. United were out of both gas and ideas, and the only meaningful change made before the last few seconds was Fred replacing Mason Greenwood, which resulted in a reshuffle of the front six. This change did not generate any new looks for United however, and they limped all the way to end of extra time, at which point Solskjaer sent on a slew on substitutions with an eye on the shootout: Juan Mata and Alex Telles replaced Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Scott McTominay, while minutes earlier Dan James weirdly replaced Paul Pogba.
In the following penalty shoot out, every one of Solskjaer’s substitutes scored. In fact, every one of United’s outfielders scored — and so did every one of Villarreal’s. After a heart-pounding several minutes where every player on the pitch other than the goalkeepers dispatched their penalties confidently, it was left to Geronimo Rulli and David de Gea to decide the outcome. Rulli fired his penalty into the roof of the net, and when the two men changed places, Rulli saved De Gea’s tame effort, handing the Europa League trophy to Villarreal and leaving Manchester United fans heartbroken.
Roll on next season.