David de Gea’s missed penalty was the fine margin between Ole Gunnar Solskjaer winning his first trophy as Manchester United manager and failure.
And while Wednesday’s Europa League final was decided in an epic penalty shootout that ended 11-10 to give Villarreal victory, there were plenty of questions and criticism for Solskjaer’s side from former players.
‘They are a million miles away’
This was Manchester United’s first final since Solskjaer took over from Jose Mourinho in December 2018, initially in a caretaker role before signing a three-year contract in March 2019.
He has lost four semi-finals during that time, and led the Red Devils to second in the Premier League this season, having finished sixth in the campaign he took over and third last season.
Their second-placed finish was 12 points behind champions Manchester City, which some regarded as progress, but former Celtic manager Neil Lennon, who was a pundit on BBC Radio 5 Live, said the club have “regressed” since Mourinho led them to second place in the league and Europa League success in 2017.
“There will be a massive inquest at Manchester United now,” said Lennon. “There will be a lot of questions to answer.
“It will be a huge disappointment for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
“They are a work in progress but they are a million miles away from being the finished article.”
United fell behind to Gerard Moreno’s first-half goal in Gdansk, before Edinson Cavani equalised 10 minutes after the break.
They dominated for large periods of the game – having 60% possession – but only registered two shots on target in the 120 minutes and Lennon was critical of the way they played.
“I didn’t see enough of the Manchester United way tonight,” Lennon said. “I haven’t seen enough of it in the last three or four years.
“There was zero entertainment tonight – it was functional, ineffective and lacked a lot of creativity and flair.”
Former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes, who was a pundit on BT Sport, said losing has “almost become an accepted thing” at the club and questioned if there is “enough demand” on Solskjaer to win trophies.
‘Solskjaer doesn’t trust his bench’
Solskjaer was left frustrated last summer when an attempt to bring Borussia Dortmund and England winger Jadon Sancho to the club failed to materialise.
He did manage to bring in Donny van de Beek, Alex Telles – who have only made 28 appearances between them in disappointing first seasons at the club – and Edinson Cavani.
Despite chasing victory Solskjaer waited until the 100th minute to make his first change of the night – even though he could make five, and six once the game went into extra time – before making five in total with the penalty shootout in mind.
That left Lennon and Dion Dublin questioning United’s squad depth.
“Solskjaer doesn’t trust his bench. He didn’t turn to it and that is worrying,” said Lennon.
Dublin, who played for Manchester United between 1992 and 1994, added: “Solskjaer needs to be able to look over his shoulder and see a bench like Manchester City have, they are the benchmark.
“He looked over his shoulder tonight and thought ‘who is going to change it for me?’ and thought ‘right, I’m not sure’.”
Lennon also said United “lacked quality all over the piece” and they “are a long way behind Manchester City and they are behind Liverpool and Chelsea”.
On BT Sport, Rio Ferdinand, who played for club between 2002 and 2014, said he thought Solskjaer had “done enough even with this result” to get a summer transfer window but admitted that next season the “demand to win trophies needs to be there”.
While Owen Hargreaves, who did the Premier League and Champions League double with the club in 2008, added: “I think they are three players off – a centre-back, a midfielder and a right winger.
“There are targets there that can make this United team better. They are closer than they have been in a long time but they just need that backing to take the final step.”
‘It was a masterclass from Emery’
Villarreal, who finished seventh in Spain’s La Liga this season, were formed 98 years ago and this is their first major trophy.
They are managed by former Arsenal boss Unai Emery, who has now won the competition four times, after winning it in 2014, 2015 and 2016 with Sevilla.
Villarreal’s goal came from their only shot on target in the whole game and former Manchester United midfield Keith Gillespie told BBC Radio 5 Live that Emery produced “a masterclass”, adding he “just got everything right”.
Lennon said he thinks Emery, who took over at Villarreal in July 2020 and will now lead the club in next season’s Champions League group stages, has done “an amazing job”.
“If you think of how he was vilified here, I don’t think he got enough time at Arsenal,” Lennon added.
“He was the main protagonist in all of this for me tonight. His experience played a part in Villarreal winning it.”