Rudderless Man Utd serve up De Gea torment as old magic eludes Solskjaer

By Sports Desk May 26, 2021

Alex Ferguson accompanied Manchester United to Gdansk for their Europa League final against Villarreal and there was an echo from his glorious era during the first half at Stadion Energa.

Flowing attacking football? Swashbuckling wing play?

Nope. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was on the touchline shouting and swearing at his players. Swearing a lot.

The spark for that particular outburst after the half hour was Aaron Wan-Bissaka sending a routine pass out of play, but the United manager was already smouldering after Gerard Moreno gave Villareal the lead in soft fashion.

As Victor Lindelof forlornly grappled with the Spain striker – who is now the joint-top scorer in Villarreal history alongside former United youngster Giuseppe Rossi – it was easy to bemoan the absence of Harry Maguire, easy to imagine the England centre-back authoritatively dealing with the situation.

It should be pointed out that Gerard's 30 goals and 10 assists in all competitions this season show plenty of opponents haven't dealt with him too effectively and, in any case, it was those performances from United's big names that need not be imagined that were the problem.

Everywhere Solskjaer looked and raged, there were big names not turning up.

Bruno Fernandes, their superstar midfielder and captain in Maguire's absence, endured an abject first 45 minutes where he was entirely unable to impose his will on the contest.

The Portugal international's 23 passes and 31 touches were the eighth-lowest returns in the United team, with only forwards Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani and goalkeeper David de Gea less involved in possession. How De Gea would have loved to keep his part in this long, slow death of a penalty shootout defeat so minimal.

Fernandes also won none of five duels contested, while Paul Pogba – purposefully probing with 31 passes in the Villareal half, including one delicious effort with the outside of his foot to release Greenwood down the right wing – was the only saving grace in a team almost entirely devoid of creativity.

Nevertheless, as bad as they were, there was not reason to worry unduly, understandable as Solskjaer's agitation was. This is just what his United do.

In 10 away games in the Premier League this season they conceded first, only to win nine and draw one of those contests Even on neutral territory, Villarreal must have known what was coming.

The pressure on Unai Emery's defence was more about volume than quality, but Fernandes was there to force the issue in the 55th minute as Luke Shaw's corner was partially cleared and his drive cannoned off a few legs and fell to the lurking Cavani.

When Shaw mishit a right-footed swipe at his forehead and Greenwood later got in the way of the veteran striker, it almost felt as if United were trying to test Cavani's masterful penalty box prowess.

What they wouldn't have given to have the Uruguay international on the of Fernandes' cross with 20 minutes remaining. Instead, Marcus Rashford produced a truly howling miss, one worryingly in keeping with the final months of a season where Solskjaer repeatedly sending him back to the well appears to have taken a toll.

Rashford wasn't the only player who did not need extra time. By the conclusion of a forgettable half hour, notable only for weary limbs and a flurry of late United substitutions after Emery reasserted some control with his more judicious deployment of fresh legs, everyone seemed happy enough to let penalties seal their fate.

For all the parallels this season with those old Fergie qualities – the comebacks, the late winners, the fast attacks – United were rudderless for far too much of this final, particularly as the shootout loomed.

They remain a team dependent on moments, moments they frequently produce, but lacking a foundation for when games end up in the mire.

Of course, poor old De Gea had moments. Eleven of them whistled past a prostrate body or outstretched gloves before a fateful 12th. The Spain goalkeeper's ordeal versus this admirable club from his homeland will linger long in the memory, but a team of United's resources should never have allowed events to spiral to that moment of torment.

For all the notable approximations of their glory years under a fan favourite, there remains much to be done for Solskjaer's United if they are to escape nights such as this where they look like little more than a straining Ferguson-era tribute act.

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