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The three major flaws and 22 penalties that left Man Utd facing ugly reality

Posted on May 28, 2021

Just as officials were scrawling through the rule books to see just how long a penalty shootout could actually last for and whether players would need to keep taking them until one-by-one they dropped dead from exhaustion and malnutrition to leave a single player left standing, David De Gea finally missed.

The Manchester United goalkeeper failed to stop any of the 11 penalties Villarreal had fired at his goal up until that point and then became the only player on the pitch not to do the same.

But in truth, the game was up well before that.

You can’t be angry at a goalkeeper for not scoring a penalty, the likes of Ederson and Allison are the exception with their scoring abilities, but there were some question marks over why, when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was making a flurry of late substitutions, De Gea’s number wasn’t one of the ones up.

The Spaniard has now failed to save any of the last 35 penalties he has faced and with Solskjaer bringing on Alex Telles and Juan Mata to take his first two spot kicks, a thought must have gone to Dean Henderson too, who has saved eight penalties since De Gea last did, most recently in the 0-0 second leg Round of 32 clash against Real Sociedad in the same competition just three months ago.

But that was the problem with Solskjaer the whole game: substitutes.

There is a painful irony not lost on many of the Manchester United fans watching that as arguably the most famous substitute in English football history, Solskjaer is so against making any of his own. And it’s not because he wants to selfishly preserve his own legacy.

It’s been an underlying problem from his Manchester United career so far, that as good as he has been as a man manager, Paul Pogba has attested to the difference in attitudes between Solskjaer and predecessor Jose Mourinho towards a benched player, his in-play game management is severely lacking.

In their 61st match of a very long season, with a very short preseason, it took 100 minutes for Solskjaer to introduce his first substitute – Fred for teenager Mason Greenwood.

Villarreal had already made five by the 88th minute, by comparison.

Why keep the creativity of Donny van de Beek and Juan Mata or the pace of Dan James and Amad Diallo on the bench when you have 11 players who are so exhausted by chasing the ball around that when they get it, they’re too tired to do anything with it?

Solskjaer did defend his approach, albeit only slightly better than his side defended set pieces on the night.

“We had players out there, like Mason and Marcus (Rashford) who are match-winners,” he said. “Bruno (Fernandes) and Edinson (Cavani) can create anything, Scott McTominay was the best player on the pitch and we had Paul (Pogba). It was difficult to make that change when Fred had been injured for a week. But we couldn’t create enough chances. We needed to play our way into the box quicker.”

He is of course correct, his best players were indeed on the pitch and have the ability to create something out of nothing. But it is much more difficult to do that after being overworked so much throughout the season.

And that was the second major flaw on display in Gdansk.

Harry Maguire played every game until he eventually broke down, missing the final and leaving his Euro 2020 place in jeopardy while Bruno Fernandes has played 57 of United’s 61 games this season, plus nine more for his country. Marcus Rashford has also played 57 (59 including England appearances). As fit as he is, Edinson Cavani is 34 years old.

It has been a theme of the second half of the season, that Solskjaer doesn’t deem the squad good enough to rotate regularly, despite having signed Van de Beek for just that reason. He has now implored the club’s owners to invest further in the squad – but he must also learn how to manage it, like Pep Guardiola does so effortlessly through his constant chopping and changing at Manchester City.

Solskjaer added: “We are here now, we need to do better, we need to work better, work harder, cleverer. But as I said two or three players to strengthen the starting XI and the squad all together is important for us to go even further.

“Because I’m sure our contenders or challengers will also want to improve and we want to improve as much as we can.”

The third flaw comes back to the goalkeeper situation.

“You go through every scenario,” he said after the defeat. “It had crossed my mind in the build-up to the game but we were confident in David [De Gea]. Anything can happen in a penalty shootout and I went with the keeper who had played the whole game.”

David De Gea or Dean Henderson? It started as De Gea, then shifted to Henderson, and then back to De Gea. The decision of who to start in the final was set to likely decide which player would be allowed to leave. It is not any clearer now, as cruel as it is to blame De Gea for this loss.