It is quite true that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is taking part of it. Without a doubt, the Norwegian has misinterpreted his (lack of) substitutions, while players like Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba have failed to live up to their abilities.
Solskjaer should have hooked Rashford at some point in the 120-point range – likely within 70 minutes – but showed so much loyalty he bordered on blind faith. It is questionable whether Rashford should even have started Villarreal’s game in the first place; he certainly hadn’t shown any form when entering the Gdansk centerpiece.
Still, the ‘Ole Out’ arguments that surfaced on social media, arguably fueled by the agony of United losing a final on the 22nd penalty kick in a single shootout, missed the point. They are unstable and unnecessary after a progressive United season.
Yes, Solskjaer made mistakes on the night in Gdansk, but he would have been hailed as a European managerial mastermind had his goalkeeper bailed him out.
Unfortunately for the Norwegian, David de Gea never seemed to. He gave his best impression of Peter Shilton’s unscrupulous performance for England in their 1990 World Cup shootout against West Germany, sometimes appearing to stray from the path of penalties ahead.
It shouldn’t have been surprising to see De Gea fail to save 11 successive penalties at Villarreal. He hadn’t saved the previous 25 he had faced, with the last stop coming from Romelu Lukaku of Everton in April 2016.
Meanwhile, Lukaku joined and then left United, Britain voted to leave the European Union, there have been three different prime ministers and the country has experienced three lockdowns due to a global pandemic. It is heartwarming to know that some things never change.
It has been said, in hindsight, that Solskjaer should have followed the lead of Louis van Gaal – who succeeded Tim Krul for Jasper Cillesen for a Dutch World Cup shootout in 2014, with surprising success. – but the United boss has shown his faith in De Gea, as he has in many other players, refusing to call on Dean Henderson.
“You go through all scenarios, of course,” Solskjaer explained when asked why he hadn’t changed keepers. “And it had crossed my mind during the preparation for the game, but we were confident in David and prepared.
“Anything can happen during a penalty shootout. I stayed with the keeper who played the whole game.
“I have to say the shots on goal were great, but we didn’t do enough in the 120 minutes to score more goals and that’s the disappointing part. “
In all fairness De Gea’s elasticity, agility and stopping ability are matched by very few goalkeepers in the world. There is no tangible reason why he should be so poor when it comes to saving penalties.
But while you think Solskjaer can recover from the mistakes he made in Gdansk, you wonder if this was De Gea’s last arc in a United shirt. As he was comforted by Sir Alex Ferguson before recovering his runners-up medal – then pulling it effectively around his neck – there was an air of resignation to the Spaniard.
The point is, United have a great alternative to Henderson who many believe should have started the final anyway.
You can’t imagine Henderson looking as small and shy as De Gea before the players in yellow sway to take their kicks. The Cumbrian is brash and daring and would have imposed himself on the situation.
De Gea did not. He then made matters worse by missing his own kick.
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Henderson is De Gea’s six-year-old junior and has already replaced the 30-year-old as United’s Premier League goalkeeper. Very few managers are able to keep two senior, pending goalkeepers happy throughout a season, and you suspect Solskjaer can’t rig him for another whole year.
The volume of matches played by United (61 in season), helped by their involvement in the Europa League, allowed them to pacify the two men with enough playing time. But the time has come for Solskjaer to make a ruthless decision, d ‘install Henderson as a force to come and put all of his eggs in that basket.
It won’t be a straightforward process, given that De Gea is United’s top earner and longest-serving player at the club, a league winner and Ferguson-era survivor, but it’s about time.
It would be a sad end for De Gea to leave on such a high note. On this occasion, however, he paid the penalty for his own failings.