Manchester United’s season may be over but the hard work is just starting for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Here are five things shunted up his to-do list by their miserable Europa League final defeat…
1) Pick a keeper. Any keeper…
Solskjaer’s goalkeeping situation was already complicated before every Villarreal player scored past David de Gea from the penalty spot.
With De Gea having been given the opportunity to reapply for his old job after Dean Henderson’s trial in the United goal, it was assumed that whoever got the nod in Gdansk would be Solskjaer’s No.1 going forward. That was De Gea. The fact that Solskjaer chose not to replace his goalkeeper before the shoot-out given the two stoppers’ contrasting record with penalties was a further hint that De Gea had won the battle for the gloves.
It would have been a brave call on Solskjaer’s behalf to make that change, even without considering the longer term ramifications. De Gea’s penalty saving record is poor – Peter Schmeichel’s wasn’t great either, even if he saved the most important one of all – but still it was reasonable to expect the Spain keeper to perform better in the shoot out.
Regardless, Solskjaer needs to put his faith in one of De Gea or Henderson and allow the other to find another goal to mind next season. Henderson would certainly be simpler to sell. Or he could move them both on. Given their form, Solskjaer could justify a clear-out in the goalkeeping department, especially if Gianluigi Donnarumma is free.
Whichever decision he makes – if it hasn’t already been made – now is the time to act decisively.
This video clearly shows why #DeGea struggles to save pens.
As I said before he regularly takes this negative step preshot which moves him further away from the side he wants to dive to hence it’s very difficult for him to save any penalty that isn’t over 1 yard from the corner! https://t.co/D0SaX8Va2z
— John Harrison (@Jhdharrison1) May 27, 2021
2) Recruit a partner for Harry Maguire
Whoever gets the gloves, give him some protection…
Harry Maguire does his best but even the captain needs help. And when Maguire is absent, Lord help the poor sod behind Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly.
Lindelof was at fault again in Gdansk, failing to halt Gerard Moreno’s free run at Dani Parejo’s set-piece delivery. The Sweden defender is too easily bullied and what he offers with other aspects of his game – few spring quickly to mind – isn’t enough to compensate for his lack of a defensive instinct.
You wouldn’t blame Lindelof or anyone else for being unsettled playing next to Bailly. He’s been at United for five years now and watching him still remains a pant-soiling, white-knuckle ride. Perhaps Solskjaer sees him as adequate cover, which is fair and would explain the new contract. He shouldn’t be starting, though, and the manager’s preference for Lindelof suggests he recognises that.
So having ended this season with Lindelof and Bailly, Solskjaer must start the next one with neither. Raphael Varane is the dream signing, though a deal for Pau Torres is said to be close.
3) Rule on Pogba’s role
Then comes the next layer of protection.
Solskjaer chose the final to, at last, ditch two defensive midfielders. With not one top-quality screener within his ranks, the United boss has felt uncomfortable to play Paul Pogba or Donny van de Beek in a deeper role because of the absence of a suitable partner. Until Gdansk.
Perhaps it was a decision forced upon him by Fred’s injury but it was not the reason United failed to fire on Wednesday night. Scott McTominay was arguably their best player just by virtue of being busy while Pogba played like a man with little motivation to make this position his own, regardless of who pairs up with him.
Pogba, in his words and actions, has never hidden his desire to play further forward but there is no room in United’s quartet to satisfy his whims. Solskjaer needs to suss swiftly whether Pogba can be teased into producing where United need him. And if so, find him a partner to complement him.
4) Develop a Plan B
The fact that Solskjaer left it 100 minutes before making a substitution offers a not-so-subtle hint over what the manager thinks of his squad’s depth.
Long before the end of normal time it was clear that Villarreal were comfortable with what little United were throwing at them. The expected Red Devils onslaught after Edinson Cavani’s leveller never materialised, and while there were some good reasons for that, Solskjaer failed to address them.
Marcus Rashford has been running on fumes for weeks so it was inevitable that at some point his engine would splutter. Solskjaer presumably saw what everyone else did but felt unable to make a change.
“We needed to play our way into the box quicker,” he reflected after the defeat but Solskjaer evidently didn’t trust Daniel James, Amad, Juan Mata or Van de Beek to be able to provide that spark. That is the only explanation for his inertia on the touchline. In which case, the only solution is fresh blood.
5) Address the absence of a winning mentality
Perhaps that is the only remedy for United’s psychological deficiencies too.
Defeats in a final, four semi-finals and a quarter-final in two years makes Solskjaer’s United the Nearly Men. Getting over the semi hoodoo was seen as a sign of progress but still they fell at the next hurdle, one they were reasonably expected to negotiate with no great difficulty.
United’s is not the record of winners and without a trophy of any sort in four years, the club is suffering amid their longest silverware drought since the early days of Sir Alex Ferguson, before he ended five barren years with the FA Cup in 1990.
That trophy was the catalyst for what followed and the Europa League offered Solskjaer a similar injection of impetus. Instead, we are left to question his own credentials and the mentality of individuals at his disposal.